NIU faces first winless football season since 1997

The+words+%27Play+Like+A+Huskie%22+on+the+front+side+of+Huskie+Stadium%27s+West+bleachers+Oct.+19%2C+at+Huskie+Stadium+in+DeKalb.

Patrick Murphy | Northern Star

The words ‘Play Like A Huskie” on the front side of Huskie Stadium’s West bleachers Oct. 19, at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

James Krause, Senior Reporter

DeKALB — The Huskies football team fought to the final play but couldn’t fend off the Eastern Michigan University Eagles, losing 41-33 Saturday in Ypsilanti. 

The loss means NIU finishes their season with an 0-6 record — their first winless season since 1997. Head Coach Thomas Hammock expressed praise for his team’s fight despite not getting the results they desired.

“The end result is disappointing,” Hammock said. “I appreciate the fight of our young men to play for four quarters. We had a chance with the ball at the end, but we didn’t make enough plays earlier in the game to keep it a lot closer than what it was.”

NIU had the ball and a chance to tie in the final minute of the game, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on redshirt senior wide receiver Tyrice Richie for shoving EMU first-year defensive back Kempton Shine. The play cost NIU 15 yards and a ten-second runoff.

“The kid flopped,” Hammock said. “It’s amazing they were able to get every call on us. Let me stop before I say something I regret.”

The Huskies were kept alive after a late safety by the Eagles and a high paced offensive attack in the fourth quarter. Sixth-year senior Ross Bowers completed seven of his last eight pass attempts, finishing the game with 221 passing yards and three touchdowns.

The offense still had its flaws, with a fumble in return for a touchdown by EMU in the second half. One of Bowers’ fellow sixth-year seniors, tight end Daniel Crawford, described the offense as “streaky” but prone to mistakes.

“Overall, I think the offense was streaky,” Crawford said. “There were some drives we put together and some things where we had to come back and do it again. It’s been the story all year, us beating ourselves up.”

NIU’s defense also encountered mixed results, recording three sacks while giving up eight catches and 136 yards to EMU junior wide receiver Hassan Beyddoun.

The Eagles jumped out to a quick lead with a 14-yard touchdown catch by sophomore wide receiver Tanner Knue on their opening drive. EMU added a 39-yard field goal by junior kicker Chad Ryland on their next drive.

The Huskies finally got their offense into scoring range on their second drive, with redshirt sophomore kicker John Richardson kicking a 46-yard field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, a squib kick by Richardson was mishandled by the Eagles return team. NIU Redshirt sophomore Jyran Mitchell recovered to give an extra possession.

Two plays later, Richie juked defenders on his way to a 19-yard touchdown catch. The Huskies managed to tie the game at 10-10 in less than a minute.

Eagles’ sophomore running back Samson Evans ran the ball down the Huskies’ throats to start the second quarter, rushing four times for 52 yards. EMU junior quarterback Preston Hutchinson threw an eight-yard touchdown pass to junior wide receiver Dylan Drummond to retake the lead.

NIU’s offense only gained one first down in the second quarter. Redshirt senior punter Matt Ference might’ve made a case for being the best offensive weapon of the first half, averaging 50.8 yards a punt, and with his longest being 60 yards.

Defensively, the Huskies made plays throughout the second quarter. First-year safety Jordan Hansen and redshirt first-year defensive lineman James Ester recorded back-to-back sacks. Sixth-year senior linebacker Kyle Pugh recovered a fumble from Hutchinson to cut off a lengthy Eagles drive.

EMU reached the red zone once, but the Huskies held on to only allow a 24-yard field goal, making the score 20-10 at halftime.

The turnovers that have plagued NIU all year reappeared in the second half, with a fumble by redshirt junior wide receiver Dennis Robinson. First-year defensive back Mark Lee Jr. recovered the ball and returned it 61 yards for an EMU touchdown.

First-year quarterback Dustin Fletcher sparked a redemption drive for the Huskies. Fletcher’s 28-yard rush set up a touchdown run by junior running back Erin Collins.

The Eagles responded with a running touchdown of their own by first-year running back Darius Boone. 

NIU capped off the quarter with another scoring drive when redshirt first-year wide receiver Messiah Travis caught a pass and ran it in for an 18-yard touchdown. The score was 34-24 at the end of the third.

After trading punts, the Eagles found themselves on the goal line after a 26-yard catch by Beydoun. Hutchinson punched it in himself for the quarterback sneak touchdown.

A long Huskies drive that ended with a punt seemed to seal the game for the Eagles, but a bad snap on their next drive pinned EMU at their own two-yard line. Redshirt junior defensive end Michael Kennedy sacked Hutchinson in the endzone for a safety two plays later.

Bowers distributed the ball to four different receivers on the next drive, including a three-yard touchdown pass to redshirt junior wide receiver Cole Tucker for the touchdown with 2:17 remaining.

On the Huskies next possession, the offense was moving down the field well until Richie committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that lost them 15 yards and incurred a 10-second runoff. 

On the final play of the game, Richie caught a pass and ran out of bounds as time expired. Hammock later said the play was intended to be a “playground play” of laterals to keep the ball alive. Instead, the play ended the game with an Eagles win 41-33.

The Huskies don’t appear to be lingering on their winless record, with Hammock already focused on what he wants to do to better prepare this team for the offseason.

“For us, this will be a critical offseason considering the physical nature and mental nature,” Hammock said. “I think our young men having a chance to go play six games means they should be able to make a tremendous jump from this season to next season.”