NIU’s bowl hopes dashed by Chips in MACtion opener

Defense has few answers for CMU’s one-two QB punch

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Mingda Wu

An NIU defender brings down Central Michigan University freshman quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. during the first half of Wednesday’s MACtion game between NIU and CMU at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. (Mingda Wu | Northern Star)

By Skyler Kisellus, Sports Editor

DeKALB – NIU football’s bowl eligibility has gone up in smoke after falling 35-22 to the Central Michigan University Chippewas in Wednesday’s midweek “MACtion” matchup at Huskie Stadium.

Wednesday’s Mid-American Conference showdown between the Huskies (2-7, 1-4 MAC) and Chippewas (3-6, 2-3 MAC) was a tale of two halves. NIU went scoreless in the first half before popping off with 22 points in the second, 15 of those coming within a span of three minutes.

CMU eventually capped off the scoring with a fumble recovery in NIU’s end zone in the fourth quarter.

Head coach Thomas Hammock said he was most disappointed with the team’s discipline in the loss.

“We had opportunities,” Hammock said. “But the thing that’s most upsetting is the penalties…You can’t do anything extra after the play and that’s on us. We take full responsibility. That’s on me, as the head coach, to be disciplined.”

While CMU was flagged more than NIU throughout the game, NIU lost more yardage. The Chippewas were charged 10 penalties for 103 yards and the Huskies racked up nine penalties for 105 yards.

“For us, that’s way too many penalties for the way that we have to play football,” Hammock said.

A meeting of longtime foes

NIU has battled with Central Michigan University more than any other Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. Wednesday’s game marked the 57th meeting of the conference rivals. CMU led the all-time series, 31-25-1.

The previous matchup between NIU and CMU on Oct. 23, 2021, ended with NIU winning 39-38 on a late field goal by then-freshman kicker Kanon Woodill.

NIU’s defense hampered the efforts of CMU’s sophomore running back Lew Nichols III, forcing two fumbles and holding Nichols to 92 yards on 28 carries. The Huskies totalled three takeaways from Central Michigan.

Quarterbacks all-around

CMU found success with three different quarterbacks in action. Sophomore Daniel Richardson and redshirt freshman Jase Bauer took a majority of CMU’s snaps. Freshman quarterback Bert Emanuel Jr. chipped in with three carries for 14 yards.

Richardson commanded the Chippewas’ passing game with 59.1% passing for 150 yards and two touchdowns. Bauer led CMU’s rushing attack, carrying the ball 14 times for 109 yards and two touchdowns.

The Huskies added another passer to their quarterback carousel this season as freshman quarterback Nevan Cremascoli, a preferred walk-on, saw his first college game action during Wednesday’s game.

“I thought he (Cremascoli) made some nice plays,” Hammock said. “Obviously, they (CMU) were coming after him pretty good. I think he can grow from this performance as he continues with his development at the quarterback position.”

NIU’s top two quarterbacks, redshirt senior Rocky Lombardi and redshirt freshman Ethan Hampton, were unavailable after each suffered injuries earlier in the season.

Sophomore quarterback Justin Lynch started the game under center and played the game’s first series. Cremascoli took the field on NIU’s second offensive drive and helmed the offense for the rest of the game.

Freshman’s college debut

Taking his first snaps as a college quarterback, Cremascoli had a slow start with six straight incompletions after completing his first two passes.

Cremascoli fumbled the ball in NIU’s end zone during the fourth quarter that ended in a Chippewas defensive touchdown to put the game away.

“We put him in a tough spot in some situations,” Hammock said. “That sack-fumble in the end zone is not his fault. That’s just not a good call in that situation, third-and-10.”

The freshman finished his collegiate debut with 39.4% passing for 158 yards, a pair of touchdowns and throwing one interception.

“It (the game) was definitely faster,” Cremascoli said. “I know I made some mistakes but … this was definitely a learning opportunity for me. “

Huskies start off sluggish

NIU had four offensive drives end in punts and three more end with turnovers-on-downs. Each of Central Michigan’s three touchdowns in the first half came after NIU turnovers-on-downs.

Bauer scored CMU’s first touchdown on a six-yard rush. Richardson followed up with a perfect passing drive (4-for-4) that ended with a 23-yard touchdown connection with junior tight end Joel Wilson to put CMU ahead 14-0.

The Huskie defense stepped up near the end of the first quarter as sophomore safety Jordan White intercepted Richardson at midfield on third-and-10

NIU’s third turnover on downs two possessions later set up CMU for its third score of the game. Richardson found redshirt freshman wide receiver Tyson Davis in the end zone from 15 yards out.

The Huskie defense recorded its second takeaway with 4:19 left in the first half. Junior linebacker Nick Rattin ripped the ball from the hands of Nichols III to give NIU possession at CMU’s 42-yard line.

The ensuing drive ended with another NIU punt. CMU brought the half to a close with a missed 51-yard field goal attempt by sophomore kicker Marshall Meeder. The Chippewas held a dominating 21-0 lead at halftime.

Huskies find a good rhythym

NIU’s began to find offensive success during its first possession of the second half, gaining 80 yards in 11 plays. Cremascoli capped off the drive with his first career touchdown pass, connecting with redshirt senior tight end Liam Soraghan for 11 yards.

CMU senior tight end Bryant Kieft played a vital role in the Chippewas’ responding drive. Kieft recovered a fumble forced by NIU and had a 20-yard reception two plays later on fourth-and-long to set up Bauer’s second rushing touchdown.

The Huskies maintained their offensive momentum as sophomore running back Harrison Waylee gained 36 yards on four carries to start the drive, putting NIU at the CMU 34. Cremascoli had his second score after passing to redshirt sophomore tight end Tristen Tewes for a 34-yard touchdown. Cremascoli hauled in a pass from senior wide receiver Shemar Thornton on the ensuing two-point attempt to narrow NIU’s deficit to 28-15.

The defense clamped down on CMU’s next offensive series. Redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Demond Taylor Jr. forced a fumble from Nichols, his second of the game, on a rushing attempt. Redshirt senior defensive end Izayah Green-May came in for the fumble recovery and took the ball 57 yards to the house for a scoop-and-score. Redshirt junior kicker John Richardson’s extra point made it a 28-22 ball game with 11:31 left to play.

Chips fire up

CMU’s defense got its time to shine midway through the fourth quarter. Pinned in his own end zone, Cremascoli fumbled the ball while being sacked by CMU senior defensive lineman Thomas Incoom. Sophomore linebacker Kyle Moretti landed on the ball in the end zone to extend the Chips’ advantage to 35-22.

CMU had its fourth turnover of the game with 3:14 left as sophomore safety C.J. Brown forced a fumble from Emanuel Jr. that was recovered by fellow sophomore safety Jordan Hansen.

Sophomore defensive back Trey Jones sealed the game for CMU on the following drive set up by Hansen’s fumble recovery, intercepting Cremascoli’s pass on NIU’s final possession.

Richardson kneeled out the remainder of the clock, allowing CMU to bag the 35-22 victory, their second road win of 2022.

NIU falls short of high expectations

NIU’s defeat guarantees that the Huskies will have a losing season, now sitting at seven losses. The Huskies had high expectations after winning the MAC title last season and being projected to do it again in the 2022 MAC Football Preseason Media Poll released over the summer.

The Huskies sit at the bottom of the MAC West standings and are second-to-last in the entire conference, only boasting a better record than the University of Akron (1-8, 0-5 MAC).

Wednesday’s loss also dropped NIU out of eligibility for a bowl game. Hammock said the team will still look to play its best football in spite of its shortcomings.

“For us, we’ve still got to continue to move forward,” Hammock said. “We’re going to try to play our best three games in the last three games of the season.”

Central Michigan keeps its hopes of going to a bowl game alive as they also needed to win out heading into Wednesday’s game.

NIU will play its final road game of the season against the Western Michigan University Broncos (3-6, 2-3 MAC) next week. Kick off is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The game will be carried on ESPNU.