Huskies clinch MAC West in OT


Courtesy of Nick LoVerde

COVID-freshman linebacker Jaden Dolphin wraps up Buffalo junior quarterback Matt Myers for a sack during NIU’s 33-27 victory over the Bulls on Nov. 17 in Buffalo, New York.

By James Krause

At a glance

  • Ratkovich scores two touchdowns, game-winner in overtime
  • Defense capitalizes on botch Buffalo snap
  • Huskies secure spot in Mid-American Conference Championship Game in Detroit

DeKALB — The Huskies beat the University at Buffalo Bulls 33-27, with a 25-yard touchdown run by redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich in overtime Wednesday to clinch a conference championship game appearance.

Ratkovich, who finished with 75 rushing yards, secured the Huskies the Mid-American Conference West Division title with his second touchdown run of the night. Head coach Thomas Hammock said winning the division is a huge payoff for his team that went winless last season.

“I’m proud and happy for the kids,” Hammock said. “They’re the ones who put the work in. I am proud of my staff. As the head coach, I can handle the negativity and it doesn’t bother me, but I’m proud of our kids for all the hard work they’ve put in to get to this point.”

NIU’s defense made a critical stop to start overtime when redshirt freshman defensive lineman Demond Taylor Jr. corralled a loose ball with goal to go.

Redshirt senior linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. rushes Buffalo junior quarterback Matt Myers in NIU’s game against Buffalo on Nov. 17. Deveaux finished with 11 tackles, including a tackle for a loss. (Courtesy of Nick LoVerde)

“It seemed like the ball was on the ground for 25 seconds,” Hammock said. “We were very fortunate. If they would have gotten on top of it, it would have been a touchdown. How about our defensive line being alert?”

Ratkovich, normally getting carries on short-yardage downs, was called upon late to lead the rushing attack of the Huskies. While his versatility gains him recognition, Hammock said Ratkovich showcased he has abilities to run with the football.

“At the end of the game, (Ratkovich) got the chance to show what he can do as a ball carrier,” Hammock said. “He is a key part to our offense and we try to utilize him as much as possible because of the versatility he brings to it.”

Any way the wind blows

While temperatures were in the low 50s, wind gusts of nearly 20 miles an hour blowing into the stadium played a heavy factor in decision making for Hammock and his staff. The Huskies strongest quarter came in the third when Buffalo was forced to punt into the wind three times, resulting in shorter kicks and thus better field position.

“We had to take advantage,” Hammock said. “I told my coaching staff at halftime that I would be very curious what (Buffalo) would decide to do with the wind. They gave us the wind in the third quarter and we were able to score 14 points with an opportunity to score more.”

Wind played a factor the most in the kicking game. After making a 32-yard field goal on the opening drive, Buffalo junior kicker Alex McNulty saw his second attempt stopped short of the goal posts by the oncoming wind.

Redshirt sophomore kicker John Richardson missed his first kick wide left, but converted a 29-yard attempt to tie the game at 3-3.

The only two touchdowns of the first half came in the second quarter on back-to-back plays. Buffalo broke the goal line first with a touchdown run by junior running back Dylan McDuffie.

On the first play of their next possession, COVID-freshman wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph took an end around handoff 75 yards for the equalizing touchdown. The score was tied 10-10 at halftime.

COVID-freshman wide reciever Trayvon Rudolph rushes past defenders on his way to a 75-yard touchdown run in NIU’s 33-27 victory over Buffalo on Nov. 17. (Courtesy of Nick LoVerde)

NIU found new life in the second half behind freshman running back Antario Brown. Brown rushed for a 47-yard touchdown on his first carry of the game The Huskies lead was extended by a seven-yard touchdown rush by redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich.

Buffalo cut off the Huskies momentum, stripping junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi of the ball and recovering. Two plays later, Bulls junior running back Ron Cook Jr. rushed for a 22-yard touchdown.

The Bulls tied the game at 24-24 in the fourth quarter with a 13-yard pass from junior quarterback Matt Myers to Cook. The two teams traded late field goals before Richardson had an attempt at the end of regulation pushed left by the win.

In overtime, Buffalo got within the Huskies five-yard line before Myers mishandled a snap that allowed NIU to force a turnover. Ratkovich scored on the Huskies first offensive play with help from his blockers.

“As soon as our left guard kicked out the one guy, there was nobody there,” Ratkovich said. “I knew I had it once I got through that first line of defenders because there was nobody there.”

What’s next?

With the win, the Huskies secure a place in the MAC Championship Game at 11 a.m. CT on Dec. 4 at Ford Field in Detroit.

First, NIU will play their final regular season game at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Huskie Stadium as they play host to the Western Michigan University Broncos.