DeKALB — The football team celebrated Homecoming with a bludgeoning blowout 49-0 win Saturday over the University of Akron Zips, its first shutout since 2012.
Head coach Thomas Hammock said weeks of working to improve helped NIU finish its closest thing to a complete game this season.
“I’m certainly proud of the effort of our young men,” Hammock said. “These guys have been grinding the past few weeks to get better. The way we prepare and the way we practice is indicative of how we play. We played a clean football game for the most part.”
On defense, the Huskies held Akron to only seven first downs and 145 total offensive yards. The Huskies’ defense also scored two touchdowns on its three takeaways.
First-year linebacker Nick Rattin had a career day, getting five tackles and an interception. The walk-on from Palatine said the performance was motivated by Hammock’s desire for 60 minutes of polished football.
“We’ve been talking about playing a complete game all year,” Rattin said. “After the half with the score still at zero, we just kept talking about finishing them and finishing the game off the right way.”
The Huskies punished Akron’s defense with a persistent ground-attack, finishing with 274 rushing yards on 62 attempts.
Tre Harbison, redshirt junior running back, finished with 158 rushing yards and two touchdowns, while Jordan Nettles, redshirt sophomore running back, rushed for 71 yards. Harbison said bringing a physicality to the run game wears down defenders.
“When you’re physical early, it starts to come easy,” Harbison said. “We harp on that. Just getting the extra yards, the violent yards and breaking off tackles. That’s just a focal point in our offense right now is to just get as much as you can.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Marcus Childers threw the ball only nine times for 71 passing yards, yet picked up three passing touchdowns in his first start of the season.
Wet conditions caused fumbles for both teams on their opening possessions, but NIU managed to find points despite the mishaps. Harbison scored on a five-yard rush to give the Huskies a 7-0 lead they would hold at the end of the first quarter.
The Huskies’ defense gave Akron first-year quarterback Zach Gibson problems early, with Michael Kennedy, redshirt sophomore defensive end, picking up a sack that gave the Zips negative seven rushing yards in the first quarter.
Huskie sophomore cornerback Devin Haney made Gibson pay for an overthrown pass in the second quarter with an interception. The Huskies followed the pick with a 30-yard run by Harbison for his second touchdown.
NIU got good field position on its next drive, scoring on a five yard Childers pass to Brett Bostad, redshirt first-year fullback. The score was the first of Bostad’s career and made it 21-0 at halftime.
The Huskies made the most of another Akron mistake when Gibson botched a handoff to Michiah Burton, first-year running back. The ensuing fumble in the endzone was recovered by redshirt senior safety Trayshon Foster for a touchdown.
Childers added on with an 18-yard touchdown throw to junior tight end Mitchell Brinkman. The quarterback, taking the place of injured senior Ross Bowers, picked up his third touchdown with a pass early in the fourth to Corey Lersch, redshirt junior tight end.
Akron looked for a spark in the fourth quarter from redshirt senior quarterback Robbie Kelley, but he struggled in the conditions against NIU.
Kelley had a pass picked off by Rattin on only the quarterback’s second drive of the day. Rattin got help from his blockers to score a 31-yard interception return touchdown for the eventual final score of 49-0.
NIU’s record overall improves to 3-5, but its conference record becomes an even 2-2 that keeps hopes of a divisional title alive. Akron remains winless at 0-8.
If the Huskies can win on the road against the Central Michigan University Chippewas Saturday, NIU has the potential to hold a share of the West Division lead in the Mid-American Conference.
The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network with kickoff scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Kelly/Shorts Stadium in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.
CMU is 5-4 on the season and 3-2 in the MAC. The Chippewas are undefeated at home with a 4-0 record and defeated Akron 45-24 Sept. 14 in Mount Pleasant.
NIU is 1-4 on the road with its only victory Oct. 12 against Ohio University 39-36.