Quest for first win continues ahead of final home game

Redshirt+senior+tight+end++Daniel+Crawford+attempts+to+evade+a+defender+Nov.+11%2C+during+NIU%27s+40-10+loss+to+Central+Michigan+University+at+Huskie+Stadium+in+DeKalb.

Mikey Escobar | Northern Star

Redshirt senior tight end Daniel Crawford attempts to evade a defender Nov. 11, during NIU’s 40-10 loss to Central Michigan University at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

James Krause, Sports Editor

DeKALB — The Huskies football team hopes continued improvement will help push them to their first win Saturday in their last home game in DeKalb when they face the University of Toledo Rockets.

Simply dubbed ‘Toledo Week’ by NIU players and fans, the game is a meeting of two podent programs in the Mid-American Conference. NIU and Toledo have the first and second-most wins since 2010 among MAC programs.

This year, the Huskies (0-4) are looking to finally put together a complete game for their first win, while the Rockets (2-2) are barely hanging onto their championship hopes. Head Coach Thomas Hammock said his team is dialed-in on getting their first win.

“They have our full attention,” Hammock said. “They’re a good football team and one that we have to be able to play our best football to have an opportunity to win.”

The last NIU home game is typically reserved as Senior Day to recognize the graduating class of players. However, with parents and families not permitted in the stands on Saturday due to COVID-19 restrictions, the team announced they will honor their 16 seniors at a later date.

NIU came close to an upset of the undefeated Western Michigan University Broncos last Saturday, losing 30-27 off a late field goal. Hammock said the missing pieces were offensive efficiency and missed chances from the special teams.

“I think offensively, when those opportunities present themselves, we have to have a chance to sustain a drive to go win a football game,” Hammock said. “That’s what sticks out in my mind. We had two opportunities to block a punt. We had an opportunity to match their kick return touchdown with a one-on-one situation. We just have to develop that mentality that we’re able to finish those plays.”

First-year running back Harrison Waylee said the offense is gaining confidence and trust in one another, and the results are showing improvement. NIU went four-for-five on fourth-down conversions and didn’t commit any turnovers against WMU.

“We just trust each other,” Waylee said. “We just executed and did our best and we’re going to keep executing as a team. We’re all animals out there.”

The game wasn’t a total loss to Hammock. He said he felt the young Huskies team with 81 underclassmen had turned a corner last week in their focus on preparation that could lead to success in games.

“I really felt like last Sunday, in our preparation for Western Michigan, the lightbulb started to go off as far as what needs to happen on the practice film,” Hammock said. “I thought they really took that intensity in their preparation. Football is the one sport where, a lot of times, what you do in practice will translate to what’s going to happen in the game.”

The meeting Saturday at Huskie Stadium will be between two of the best defenses in the Mid-American Conference with Toledo leading in fewest yards allowed per game and NIU ranking third.

Toledo also has the multifaceted junior running back Bryant Koback. Koback leads the team in both rushing yards and receptions, having a total of 101 touches this season. Hammock said the Rockets and Koback bring a variety of schemes to try and beat the defense.

“They have a variety to their run game,” Hammock said. “They have a zone scheme, a power scheme [and]a counter scheme. They throw a bunch of different things at you. [Koback] is a very patient runner, and that allows them to set up blocks and get down field.”

The achilles heel of the Rockets is pass protection, allowing senior quarterback Eli Peters to be sacked five times last Saturday in their 27-24 loss to the Ball State University Cardinals.

NIU first-year linebacker Daveren Rayner, who recorded the first sack of his college career against WMU, said the defense can put on a similar performance this Saturday.

“I feel like our front seven is really good,” Rayner said. “As long as we play our football, I don’t know why we shouldn’t be able to put up those same numbers.”

Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 11 a.m. CST Saturday at Huskie Stadium. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.