Hammock makes NIU debut with defensive-minded victory
DEKALB -- The last time Northern Illinois played Illinois State, Thomas Hammock rushed for 140 yards and 2 touchdowns as NIU won 52-0 in 2000.
On a rainy Saturday night in DeKalb, Hammock made his head-coaching debut against the Redbirds. The two teams combined didn't approach 52 points, but the Huskies played well enough to wrap up a 24-10 victory for Hammock at Huskie Stadium.
"I was a lot more into the game on both sides of the ball, I can tell you that," Hammock said when asked how it felt to work his first game as a head coach. "Normally when you're an assistant, you just worry about the offense and then you're just relaxing for a while.
"I'm flipping over talking to the defense, making sure we're on the right calls. We had poise, we had composure with the coaching staff, and I thought our players responded the way we wanted them to respond."
This matchup was dominated by defense. The score was tied at 3-3 well into the third quarter and the outcome wasn't decided until a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown by Waukegan native Jalen McKie with 2:31 left.
"It was pretty well played for most of the night," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said. "If you like defense."
An FBS team like NIU has a significant advantage in the number of scholarships compared to an FCS squad, but Illinois State started the season ranked No. 13 with hopes of returning to the FCS playoffs. ISU had won its last two meetings against FBS teams, defeating Colorado State last year and Northwestern in 2016.
Illinois State's best offensive weapon, running back James Robinson, had trouble finding any room. He finished with just 16 rushing yards on 9 carries. NIU lost all-American defensive end Sutton Smith to the NFL but returned seven defensive starters.
"We expected a four-quarter game," Hammock said. "Our team did a good job of not flinching. We will improve as an offense. I saw some good things from our defense."
NIU went with Cal grad transfer Ross Bowers at quarterback, ending a string of 22 consecutive starts by redshirt junior Marcus Childers. Bowers' first half was nothing special, but he finished with 299 yards passing, completing 20 of 33 attempts.
The one miscue happened when a Bowers pass was deflected at the line and then intercepted by Wheeling native Dylan Draka. That turnover set up a field goal and the teams headed to halftime tied at 3-3.
The two defenses continued to slug it out in the third quarter. NIU got field position after a muffed punt return, but the Redbirds stuffed Tre Harbison (23 carries, 99 yards) for no gain on fourth-and-1 on the 7-yard line.
"We talk every day about defending every inch," Draka said of Illinois State's defensive effort. "I don't think it surprised any of us. That's what we expect to do when we're out there."
The Huskies finally found the end zone when Bowers fired a strike over the middle to junior-college transfer Tyrice Richie for a 22-yard score.
When Illinois State changed directions for the fourth quarter, it found some offense. On the first play, quarterback Brady Davis hit Kacper Rutkiewicz, a 5-8 freshman from Hersey, for 19 yards, then lofted a bomb to Taylor Grimes for a 42-yard touchdown that tied the score at 10-10.
NIU answered back on the first play after the kickoff. Bowers threw about a 10-yard pass to Richie, who spun to elude the defender and was off to the races for a 68-yard TD with 14:04 remaining.