After Injuries, penalties plagued first-half season, Huskies back on track

Marcus Jones, redshirt senior running back, returns a kick Oct. 5 against Ball State University during an eventual 27-20 loss at Huskie Stadium.

DeKALB — NIU football head coach Thomas Hammock was able to take more from his grandfather, Charles Thomas Johnson, than just his middle name.

After Hammock’s mother had the future Huskie at an early age, Hammock’s grandfather took on a large role in raising him, leaving a lasting impact on Hammock that continues today.

“My grandfather had a big role in helping to raise me and develop as a man,” Hammock said. “I owe a lot to him. He spoke greatness on me at an early age and I’m grateful for that. He passed a couple years ago so I think about him all the time, and it’s just one of those things that’s always on my mind. He always talked about ‘Tough times don’t last, tough people last.’”

The memory of his grandfather came to Hammock when addressing the media after a 27-20 loss to the Ball State University Cardinals on Oct. 5, the Huskies’ fourth loss in a row. In a game where his team blew a halftime lead and fumbled the ball four times, Hammock said the blame was on him.

Hammock has seen peaks and valleys so far this season. After winning their season opener against Illinois State, the Huskies fell in all three of their road non-conference games.

NIU started Mid-American Conference play with a loss to Ball State after leading 14-0 in the first quarter. The Huskies snapped their losing streak last week thanks to a last second field goal to beat Ohio University 39-36.

Hammock said getting his players better prepared to play is the aspect of his coaching he wants to improve most, now that he is halfway through his first season as head coach.

“I just think for me, it’s getting our players in the best possible position to be successful,” Hammock said. “Since I took the job, I said from the beginning, we’re not going to throw a system at them. We’re going to put them in situations to thrive, and every week we’ve been given those opportunities.”

After Injuries, penalties plagued first-half season, Huskies back on track

Head Coach Thomas Hammock stands on the sideline Oct. 5 analyzing the Huskies' performance in a 27-20 defeat against Ball State University at Huskie Stadium.

There is a learning curve for Hammock to implement an offense, especially with a staff in their first-year together. With a new scheme being executed on offense led by redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers, Hammock knows his offense will take time to fully materialize.

“The first year you’re trying to figure out the personnel, evaluating the personnel and implementing schemes,” Hammock said. “We’re starting to figure out what guys can do well, not just in practice but in games.”

The pass offense for the Huskies has started to become a calling card, with Bowers currently 18th in the nation in 1,267 passing yards. Junior wide receiver Tyrice Richie leads the team with three touchdown catches, while tight ends senior Daniel Crawford and junior Mitchell Brinkman have combined for 45 catches this season.

Related: Crawford and Brinkman see tight end position solidified in Huskie offense

Still, there’s a piece to the offensive attack the former Huskie running back wants to make a bigger part of the offense.

“We need to improve the run game,” Hammock said. “When we need to run the ball, we need to be able to dial it up and be efficient. That’s something we’re going to continue to work on and get better at.”

NIU currently holds the 15th worst average rushing yards per game in the country, but the Huskies have seen a turnaround from their lead rusher, junior running back Tre Harbison. Harbison has scored five rushing touchdowns in the last two games to go with a combined 259 rushing yards after failing to score once in the first four games.

The Huskies have also focused their efforts on limiting penalties, after committing 12 fouls against Ball State that cost them 111 yards. NIU only committed three penalties this past week in their win over Ohio, with players saying their coaching staff is putting the pressure on during practice.

“I look at the pre-snap penalties as just a matter of focus,” senior offensive lineman Christopher Perez said. “That’s dealt with during the week. We want the week of practice to be harder than the game, so our coaches give us some more aggressive looks and bring on different things than we’re used to in the game.”

NIU has been above average, but not nearly to the level of the team’s performance last season on the defensive side of the ball. This is in part due to a plague of injuries and players bouncing in and out of the lineup with targeting suspensions.

Senior linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. has yet to play after having surgery prior to the start of the season, replaced by junior linebacker Jordan Cole. Sophomore linebacker Vinny Labus has started the last four games after redshirt sophomore linebacker Kyle Pugh suffered an injury that took him out for the season. Despite these injuries, Hammock said the quality of play set by previous NIU teams needs to be met, even without some of their best players.

“The standard is the standard,” Hammock said. “We can’t change our standards depending on who’s in the game. What we do need to do is play complementary football where if we’re missing someone on defense, everyone else picks up the slack.”

Cole has 12 tackles filling in for Deveaux, while redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis leads the team in tackles with 46. No matter the place they are on the depth chart, Cole said the defense expects to be ready.

“We want everybody to be able to do their job, and everyone to play at the same level,” Cole said. “No matter if we’re at full strength or not, we’re ready.”

It took six conference wins for the Huskies to reach the MAC championship game last year, and a strong second half of the season could propel NIU back to Detroit in December. Hammock said the focus isn’t on where they will be at season’s end, but on winning a game at a time.

“We talk about staking days, weeks, practices and wins,” Hammock said. "This is our first real shot at staking some wins together.”

The Huskies will look to stack another win 1:30 p.m. Saturday against the Miami University – Ohio RedHawks at Yager Stadium in Oxford, Ohio.

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