DeKALB — The start of conference play is always a great opportunity for struggling teams to clear the slate and begin again.
Returning to Huskie Stadium for the first time since Aug. 31 and opening Mid-American Conference play against Ball State gave the Huskies a chance to hit the refresh button on the season after three-straight road losses that were each frustrating in their own ways.
For three of the four quarters, the Huskies looked ready to vent a lot of that frustration and get off to a great start in the MAC before two-tough road games at Ohio University and Miami University of Ohio.
It’s a four-quarter game, and, unfortunately, a disastrous third quarter was the catalyst to a 27-20 loss that dropped the Huskies to 1-4 on the season and 0-1 in league play.
“I have to continue to get our players to get locked in to play four quarters of football,” Huskies Head Coach Thomas Hammock said. “It’s something that we have been searching for, talking about and practicing, to play four quarters. I’ll look that adversity in the face. We will continue to fight week in and week out to find the consistency we need to be a good football team.”
Things looked good heading into halftime, as the Huskies had parlayed an interception by redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis — who had a monster game with 17 total tackles, a sack and 1 ½ tackles for loss — into a 19-yard touchdown run by Tre Harbison, redshirt junior running back just 66 seconds into the game.
Harbison, who had a great game with a season-high 146 yards on the ground, made it a 14-0 game just moments later when he scampered in from 28 yards out with 8:36 to go in the quarter. By halftime, the Huskies held a 17-3 lead and would start the third quarter with the ball.
Then it began raining on the Huskies’ parade, both figuratively and literally.
The third quarter was contested in a downpour, and many of the troubles that had plagued the Huskies reared its ugly heads.
By the time the third quarter had finished, the Huskies had committed six penalties for 56 yards, lost junior defensive tackle Weston Kramer to an ejection, making our-straight games in which a defensive player has been thrown out, fumbled the ball three times and lost it twice and didn’t record a first down.
All of the struggles allowed Ball State to put 14 points on the board to tie the game at 17, and there were still two hits left to come.
Stuck deep in their own territory to start the fourth quarter, the Huskies punted the ball away, and on Ball State’s first play from scrimmage, junior running back Caleb Huntley went 45 yards into the end zone to give the Cardinals a 24-17 lead. The Cardinal finished the game with 160 bruising yards on 35 carries, tagging along two touchdowns on the ground.
Senior quarterback Ross Bowers, who lost a fumble in the third quarter in the rain, threw an interception that led to the Cardinals closing out their scoring with a field goal from senior kicker Ryan Rimmler, 22 yards out.
"We didn’t execute,” Harbison said. “We don’t blame anyone or point fingers, it’s on ourselves as a team.”
The rain let up in the fourth quarter and the Huskies began moving the ball late, making it a 27-20 game on a John Richardson, redshirt first-year kicker, 43-yard field goal with 2:45 to go. With no timeouts remaining NIU had the clock catch up to them, and for the first time since 2008 the coveted Bronze Stalk trophy headed back to Muncie, Indiana.
Although at a crippling 1-4 record the season isn’t lost yet. The Huskies were 1-3 to start conference play a year ago, then went 6-2 in the MAC and finished the season by winning the conference championship game.
The margin for error, however, is much smaller than in 2018. Three very difficult road games remain, and it looks like all roads to win the MAC West will go through Toledo, which improved to 4-1 after knocking off Western Michigan University on Saturday, 31-24.
Take away the mental and physical mistakes, and the Huskies are a better team than they were to start the year, but those mistakes need to be fixed, and fast. It’s hard to say a team is in must-win territory early in October, but that’s where the Huskies are living right now.
“When you look at momentum, it’s always the next snap, and we were never able to gain momentum on the next snap,” Hammock said. “We started as well as we can start, we just have to have a way to come back in the second half and put it all together.”
Hammock said he won’t make excuses for the bad execution in the third quarter. Although the rain and cold seeped in, Hammock said his team felt good, but just couldn’t get things done.