OXFORD, Ohio – Whatever expectations anyone had about football this season in the Mid-American Conference can be thrown out the window.
Following a week in which the team predicted to finish last in the MAC West (Ball State) defeated West favorite Toledo, 52-14, things are more than just topsy-turvy in the conference.
No one should be surprised if a three-loss MAC West squad makes the MAC title game, so Ball State’s victory over NIU looms heavy after three conference contests.
Suffice to say NIU’s 1-2 start is far from the only bizarre thing happening in a conference used to NIU’s stronghold on the West. And for a Huskies team under first-year coach Thomas Hammock, who likes to talk about evaluation a lot, it’s time to start getting results or lose that stranglehold in a wild, wide-open conference.
Eastern Michigan defeated Western Michigan this past week. Central Michigan has gone from having perhaps the worst offense in the FBS in 2018 to improving to 5-3 and 3-1 in the conference. The Chippewas, whom the Huskies face on the road Nov. 2, have perhaps the best one-two running back punch in the MAC with Jonathan Ward and Kobe Lewis, as the two have a combined 1,277 yards on the ground and 16 rushing touchdowns. Kent State even battled Ohio to the wire in a shootout road loss.
Flashing back to Saturday, the RedHawks showed what continuity and some adjustments on the offensive side of the ball can do, when freshman quarterback Brett Gabbert took to the air late in the second quarter to exploit NIU’s cornerbacks, leading to a touchdown just before the half to cut the Huskies’ lead to three.
“I knew that touchdown before the first half where we had good control of the game was going to come back to bite us,” Hammock said. “We don’t have a big margin for error. We have to play clean football.”
While NIU was clean with zero turnovers and only one penalty, the ability to make big plays was mostly absent on both sides of the ball for the Huskies, minus a big reception each from Cole Tucker and Michael Love. The Huskies got only one sack, which came from linebacker Vinny Labus.
When Miami realized it could attack the Huskies through the air, especially the corners, the RedHawks went to the well until it went dry. And the well remained wet almost the entirety of the remainder of the game.
“They just did a good job of making adjustments in the second half,” Huskies safety Mykelti Williams said. “We’ve got to do a better job of executing and continue to find ways to get ourselves off the field on third downs.”
Nick Rattin and Vinny Labus slowly have shown the improvements that the Huskies have been looking for at the linebacker position. It wasn’t the core of linebackers, even minus a suspended Jordan Cole, that was at fault for Miami’s passing success on the outside.
“When you’ve got some injuries, that affects your special teams,” Hammock said. “Nick Rattin was a four-phase special teams guy. You start putting the next guy in. We’re getting stretched a little bit with our roster, but you know what? That’s for me to clean up.”
The RedHawks’ first touchdown of the second half came to a wide open James Maye as Gabbert ripped a long strike for 45 yards right through NIU’s 4-2-5 look with five defensive backs on the field.
To the Huskies’ credit, they responded immediately, with a big strike from Marcus Childers to Michael Love, which set up Childers’ second rushing touchdown.
Minus wide receiver Tyrice Richie because of an unexplained suspension, the Huskies already were attacking the ground game and packing the box with extra blockers to begin the contest. If that already was part of the plan, maybe the same should be expected when NIU takes the field Saturday for its Homecoming game against winless Akron this weekend.
Maybe we’ll see some Childers under center this week, as Ross Bowers entered the concussion protocol in the Miami game.
Getting downhill in the run game will only help the Huskies, and that seemed to be in offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness’ mind when Tre Harbison lined up directly behind Bowers in a pistol shotgun look early in the game. The Huskies moved the ball at times in the run game in the first half, but once again had no steam running in the second half.
Going under center is just a small adjustment that could be used to help the running game, given Harbison’s abilities.
“We didn’t abandon the run, but when you go down a score, we try to get a score,” coach Thomas Hammock said. “We’ve got to keep evaluating what we’re doing and trying to get better with everybody that we have.”
The evaluating continues, and it’s a word NIU fans should continue to expect to hear from Hammock. He’s been consistent with that topic.
But at this point, it’s more on the coaching staff to put NIU in the correct positions to make plays going forward if the Huskies have any chance of making a bowl game, where even four wins over the Huskies’ next five games might not do the trick.