NIU faces Buffalo with title looming

Redshirt+junior+wide+reciever+Cole+Tucker+fends+off+an+attempted+tackle+by+University+of+Wyoming+junior+safety+Rome+Weber+on+Sept.+11+in+DeKalb.++Tucker+caught+six+passes+for+103+yards+and+a+touchdown+in+the+Huskies+30-29+victory+over+Ball+State.

Khavon Thomas | Northern Star

Redshirt junior wide reciever Cole Tucker fends off an attempted tackle by University of Wyoming junior safety Rome Weber on Sept. 11 in DeKalb. Tucker caught six passes for 103 yards and a touchdown in the Huskies 30-29 victory over Ball State.

By James Krause

At a glance

  • Huskies can clinch MAC West with victory against Buffalo
  • Hammock says team still has room for improvement following Bronze Stalk Trophy win
  • Bulls boast best pass rush in conference, options in offensive attack

DeKALB — With a Mid-American Conference championship appearance in play, the Huskies play their final road game of the season Wednesday against the University at Buffalo Bulls.

NIU, with a 7-3 overall record and a 5-1 record in the MAC, can secure a West Division title with a win over the Bulls. The focus isn’t on the standings or a MAC title shot just yet.

“We’re just trying to find a way to be 1-0 this week,” head coach Thomas Hammock said. “If we win the game, everything will sort itself out. There’s really nothing to focus on besides winning this game.”

The idea of a division title isn’t totally out of the mind of players. Redshirt junior wide receiver Cole Tucker said it’s just something to look forward to down the road with a focus on the 4-6 Bulls.

“It’s fun and cool, but we’re not looking too far ahead,” Tucker said. “We got to take it one game at a time. There’ll be a big celebration if we win and get to a MAC championship but we’re not thinking about that right now.”

The Huskies are coming off a 30-29 victory over the Ball State University Cardinals thanks to a game-winning field goal by redshirt sophomore kicker John Richardson. The Huskies had a pair of late game drives manufactured by junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who finished the game with 264 passing yards.

Hammock isn’t simply viewing the victory through rose colored glasses, saying there’s improvements to make on both sides of the ball. NIU won despite giving up two turnovers to the Cardinals and 246 rushing yards.

“We have to clean up our ability to work together as a football team,” Hammock said. “We were in some situations where on defense we could have had more guys rush to make a play…Offensively, we have to clean up some of the details, especially in our run game.”

Buffalo has struggled under first-year head coach Maurice Linguist, but the Bulls lead the conference in sacks with 34. Junior defensive tackle Daymond Williams leads the team with 5.5 sacks.

“They really have a nice way of getting after the quarterback,” Hammock said. “Obviously the more you drop back to pass, the greater opportunity they have to get sacks. We have to be smart in what we ask from our quarterback and offensive line. Then, we have to have balance and stay in normal down and distance.”

On defense, the Huskies will try and wrangle a variety of Bulls players with Linguist spreading opportunities far and wide among his players. The Bulls have eight different players with rushing touchdowns and nine different players with receiving touchdowns.

“They got two quarterbacks with potential to play, three running backs with potential to play and a tremendous wide receiver core,” Hammock said. “We have to be gap sound in our defense and we have to be man sound with jet sweeps and motions they could present. We have to play a team style of defense that we still have to work on.”

Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT Wednesday in Buffalo, New York. The game will be nationally televised on ESPN2.