On a cold and rainy night in DeKalb, Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock had his Huskies prepared to play spoiler. The Western Michigan Broncos were coming into town needing a win to clinch the MAC West title and guarantee a trip to Detroit. The Huskies defense had the task of defending Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy, who had 21 rushing touchdowns and 1,284 rushing yards coming into the contest.
Coach Hammock relayed a winning message to his team, which he elaborated on in his press conference: “In life, winning matters, so anytime you go out there you want to win. If you’re competing for a job, you want to win.” With that mentality and a hungry group of Huskies that wanted to send an important senior class out the right way, this had all the makings for an upset in DeKalb.
The Huskies also faced adversity on the home front with starting running back Tre Harbison entering the NCAA Transfer Portal just six days before kickoff. The game itself started relatively slow, as both teams remained scoreless with stout defensive and special teams play until John Richardson connected on a 44-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Perhaps the most exciting play of the first quarter came when sophomore linebacker Jordan Cole blocked a Gavin Peddie field goal to hold the Broncos scoreless on the drive. Cole even complimented it with a 25-yard return to set the Huskies up in plus territory.
As the weather played a factor throughout the game, the two teams employed run-heavy offensive attacks, but both defenses came to play. For the Huskies defense, this was no small task. The Broncos offense came into the game averaging 27.6 PPG on the road this season. The first half was played primarily between the 20s until NIU junior wideout Tyrice Ritchie got his hands on the ball with a refusal to go down. As he landed on a Western Michigan defender around the 40-yard line, the whistle never blew and Richie got up to finish the play in the end zone for a 71-yard touchdown reception. Ritchie spoke to the importance of the catch: “That play set the tone for the rest of the game, it was crazy.”
On the defensive side of the ball, it was a busy game for defensive backs Jalen McKie and MyKelti Williams. McKie recorded six solo tackles heading into the half, and Williams added three solo tackles of his own. Both teams also lost two fumbles in the opening 30 minutes, but this was a first-half Huskie shutout as they led the game 10-0.
The second half started without a hiccup for the Western Michigan offense as LeVante Bellamy scored on a six-yard touchdown run to cap off a five-play, 81-yard drive that only took 2:04 off the clock. It should be noted that NIU punter Matt Ference had seven punts on the day, amassing 352 yards and landing four of those inside the Western Michigan 20-yard line. With Ference booting the ball all over the yard and senior defensive end and Quintin Wynne leading the charge upfront on the defensive side with five tackles and two TFLs, the Huskies defense held the Western Michigan offense for the rest of the third quarter.
In this game, controlling the clock and winning the field position battle was of utmost importance. It just so happened that the defense was firing on all cylinders as well, as junior defensive tackle Jack Helfin reaffirmed after the game: “We were just all playing together, we were playing complementary football.”
The rain began to come down harder as the Huskies drove the ball down the field looking for some insurance points to extend their lead and secure a victory. Those insurance points came in unexpected fashion when true freshman wide receiver Michael Love connected with tight end Mitchell Brinkman on a seven-yard touchdown pass to put the Huskies up 17-7 with 7:47 remaining in the contest. The receiver passing play I later dubbed as the “Husky Special” was practiced all season long and was to be used if there was a two-point conversion attempt, according to NIU Head Coach Thomas Hammock. That two-point conversion opportunity did not arise, so they utilized the play from scrimmage and it resulted in six points. For Love, it was his first collegiate touchdown pass and it ultimately proved to be the difference in the game for the Huskies.
The MACtion was not over just yet, however. The Western Michigan offense then marched down the field in a video game-like fashion with LeVante Bellamy scoring a 16-yard touchdown run that capped off a six-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that took just 1:22 to complete. For the Huskies, it was gut-check time. After both teams traded punts, NIU needed one more stop to seal the deal in DeKalb. That stop came from sophomore defensive back Dillon Thomas, who forced a fumble that was scooped up by fellow defensive back MyKelti Williams. That crucial takeaway would seal the deal on a 17-14 Senior Night victory for the Huskies.
Northern Illinois finished the season with a 5-7 record, but they sent seniors Trayshon Foster, Qunitin Wynne, and MyKelti Williams off in a way they will remember for the rest of their lives. For Coach Hammock, sights are set on 2020. “We start recruiting on Sunday,” he stated in the postgame press conference.
With that being said, the future is bright in DeKalb as the team is expected to make some noise over the next few years in front of the Husky faithful. Here at On Tap Sports Net, we will begin expanding coverage of Huskies football going forward. Be on the lookout for a potential Huskies On Tap podcast! The video below features the media I documented from the game. Enjoy!
Featured Photo: NIU Athletics