NIU hopes to cash in on challenge of facing No. 13 Utah
As they say in the working world, "It's time to pay the bills."
Northern Illinois football is right in line, getting ready to play three straight road games against Power Five opponents, beginning Saturday at Utah. This game is followed by trips to Nebraska and Vanderbilt.
This is a common practice among MAC schools, which will play a total of 22 games against Power Five opponents this season. In fact, NIU may not even have the league's toughest nonconference schedule. Miami of Ohio is playing Iowa, Ohio State and Cincinnati, for example. Kent State is traveling to Arizona State, Auburn and Wisconsin.
So besides helping fund the athletic department, these games can be a good test for the players. NIU was competitive in a 17-6 loss to Utah last year in DeKalb, and the Huskies beat Nebraska in 2017.
"If you're a true competitor, you get excited about these opportunities," NIU coach Thomas Hammock said this week. "Who doesn't want an opportunity to play somebody of a higher level as far as a Power Five team?"
No. 13 Utah is playing at a higher level than it's used to. The Utes had their highest preseason ranking (No. 14) in program history and were picked as the preseason favorite in the Pac-12. Eight defensive starters return from last year's team that played NIU.
"They're returning a lot of people on defense, a lot of the same faces," said NIU tight end Daniel Crawford. "With that, you know you're going to get the same guys, but stronger, more experienced, more physical and more cohesive as a unit. I think it's a good challenge for us."
Utah opened the season with a 30-12 victory in its rivalry game against BYU. Running back Zack Moss finished with 187 yards on 29 carries, while the Utes returned 2 interceptions for touchdowns. Moss is a player who caught Hammock's eye a year ago when the former NIU star was running backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens.
"This is an NFL-type player we're going against," Hammock said. "We have to make sure we gang-tackle (Moss).
"I'm sure they've got one of the best defenses in the country, based on what I've seen. That's a big challenge. Our offensive line is going to be challenged. They need to play better than they played last week. I'm expecting a very physical contest."
Northern Illinois began the Hammock era with a 24-10 victory over Illinois State. It was a defensive slugfest for nearly three quarters, but the Huskies eventually pulled away thanks to a couple of offensive newcomers.
Quarterback Ross Bowers, a grad transfer from Cal, connected on 2 touchdown passes to receiver Tyrice Richie, a junior-college transfer from Dodge City, Kansas. Bowers completed 20 of 33 passes for 299 yards in his NIU debut, while Richie had 3 catches for 102 yards. Crawford, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, added 3 catches for 75 yards.
NIU's last touchdown against Illinois State was an interception return by Waukegan High School product Jalen McKie. Tre Harbison finished with 99 yards on the ground, but Hammock, a former running back himself, wants to see more from the run game.
"We have to make more people miss, we've got to get more yards after contact, and I think we have to create more seams up front," Hammock said. "Whoever dominates the line of scrimmage is going to win this football game."
It was an eventful head-coaching debut for Hammock. His coach at NIU, Joe Novak, was on hand to greet Hammock and the Huskies as they took the field last Saturday night. The players commemorated his initial win by dousing Hammock with Gatorade when it ended.
"Yes, I've come down from that," Hammock said. "I needed to, otherwise I was going to crash. It was an exciting moment for me, my family, the team. I was more emotional than I anticipated being."