Huskies rally to upset Georgia Tech

A catch by receiver Tyrice Richie just stayed off the turf to give NIU a season opener win.


Danny Karnik | Associated Press

NIU wide receiver Tyrice Richie (3) catches a pass over Georgia Tech defensive back Wesley Walker (13) during the first half of the Huskies 22-21 victory over Georgia Tech on Sept. 4, 2021, in Atlanta.

By James Krause

ATLANTA — On the catch that put NIU ahead by the eventual final score of 22-21 over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets Saturday night, redshirt senior wide receiver Tyrice Richie was telling everyone he knew he caught it.

“I was just telling everyone I caught the ball,” Richie said. “I take pride in catching the ball. I tell myself every day, ‘I’m going to get hit, but I’m going to make the catch.’”

Down a touchdown, the Huskies scored with 38 seconds left, with junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi finding redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich on a three-yard pass. Richie caught the ensuing two-point conversion, and an official review ruled Richie just kept the ball off the turf for a completion to take the lead.

With the game on the line, NIU blocked a 61-yard field goal as time expired to seal the 22-21 win and head coach Thomas Hammock’s first power-five road victory of his coaching career.

After giving up 21 unanswered points to the Yellow Jackets and giving up a lead, Hammock said his team’s resolve carried them past their mistakes.

“I know the toughness of our team,” Hammock said. “We were not going to quit or give up. We were going to find a way to make a play, and those kids did.”

The Huskies overcame an injury to redshirt freshman defensive back Devin Lafayette that required the Georgia native to be taken off the field in an ambulance. Redshirt senior linebacker Lance DeVeaux Jr. said the team felt compelled to fight on for their injured teammate.

“It’s unfortunate that Devin went down like that, but we have to keep going,” DeVeaux said. “That added extra motivation to us to play for him. It doesn’t stop us, and we can’t stop playing because one of our brothers gets hurt. We have to go out and keep executing.”

It was that motivation that kept redshirt freshman Harrison Waylee’s head up after a late fumble that gave the Yellow Jackets the lead. Waylee had a career-high 144 rushing yards.

“It’s pretty difficult, and it gets you down, but my teammates lifted me up,” Waylee said. “They told me, ‘Keep your head up, and we can win this game, and I listened to them. When I was called back in, that was my job.”

The Huskies’ defense looked strong in the first half, forcing a turnover on downs and limiting  Georgia Tech’s scoring chances to two missed field goal attempts in the first quarter. Freshman cornerback Eric Rogers recovered a second-quarter fumble from Georgia Tech freshman quarterback Jeff Sims.

NIU running back Clint Ratkovich scores a touchdown during the second half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Georgia Tech on Sept. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (Danny Karnik | Associated Press)

NIU took the lead when Waylee found a massive gap and outran the Yellow Jackets to a 35-yard rushing touchdown with 1:56 left in the first quarter.

Lombardi threw his first touchdown as a Huskie in the second quarter, connecting with junior tight end, and Youngstown State transfer, Miles Joiner on a six-yard touchdown pass.

With backup redshirt freshman quarterback Jordan Yates, the Yellow Jackets ended the first half with their first touchdown. Yates found senior wide receiver Kyric McGowan in the endzone for a 22-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-7 NIU at halftime.

Georgia Tech’s rushing attack put the Jackets at NIU’s three-yard line midway through the third quarter, but the Huskies defense held to force a fourth and goal. The Yellow Jackets elected to go for the goal line. Yates connected with McGowan in the corner of the endzone for what was initially ruled a touchdown by officials, but replay overturned the call and forced a turnover on downs.

In the fourth quarter, the momentum completely changed in Georgia Tech’s favor. Yellow Jackets redshirt sophomore running back Dontae Smith rushed for a 15-yard touchdown that tied the game with 7:44 remaining.

On the second play of the ensuing NIU drive, Waylee was stripped of the ball, and Georgia Tech recovered. Yates rushed for a four-yard touchdown himself putting Georgia Tech ahead 21-14 with 6:32 remaining.

NIU punted away their next possession but were granted another opportunity with 2:42 left. Several large completions by Lombardi put NIU in the red zone with under a minute remaining before Lombardi connected with Ratkovich for the touchdown. 

Richie made the catch on the two-point conversion and barely kept it off the turf to stand upon official review. The Yellow Jackets were unable to make anything of the remaining 38 seconds, losing at the buzzer on a blocked field goal.

The Huskies return to DeKalb for their home opener against the University of Wyoming Cowboys at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 11 at Huskie Stadium.