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Special teams strong for NIU football

NIU running back Tre Harbison (22) carries the ball against Ball State Cardinals safety Bryce Cosby (17) at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 9.
NIU running back Tre Harbison (22) carries the ball against Ball State Cardinals safety Bryce Cosby (17) at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 9.

DeKALB – Jackson Abresch made history Thursday night, returning two blocked punts for touchdowns in a 63-17 win against Ball State.

It was just an exclamation point on the season the Northern Illinois special teams unit is having, with a nation-leading six blocked kicks this season.

Coach Rod Carey said the players have bought into the system of special teams coach Dan Sabock – whose father, Mike Sabock, was an NIU assistant for 24 years.

“I’m certainly happy with all that now,” Carey said. “But with all that said, I think we can still be better at certain aspects of it, and Dan and the guys would agree with me. But I’m certainly happy with it at this point.”

Abresch was the third player to score two touchdowns on blocked punts in a single game in Football Bowl Subdivision history and the first since 1997. He was named the MAC Special Teams Player of the Week – an award punter Matt Ference and kicker Christian Hagan also have won this year.

Trayshon Foster, who had one of the blocks against the Cardinals, said that the blocks spark the entire team.

“Having a block is very exciting,” Foster said. “The coaches from the top down put a big emphasis on special teams this year. They let us know every game that special teams is the difference in the game. You can’t look past special teams.”

Part of that, Carey said, is because the special teams players are – in a lot of cases – starters on offense and defense. At the very least they are players such as Foster who gets playing time on more than just kick and punt packages.

“Offensive and defensive guys are the ones playing on special teams, so they take it serious and know what kind of a momentum swing it can be for the offense or the defense,” Carey said. “They’re locked in to that. That’s what I mean about the buy-in, or the execution. They’re starting to see the fruits of that.”

Shively, Graham likely to play: Although Carey has said that Marcus Childers is the starter at quarterback, he added that he still is hoping to get Ryan Graham playing time, as well.

Graham was the starter in the opener against Boston College but was hurt in the game. He saw his first action last week against Ball State but didn’t attempt a pass.

“He is going to play,” Carey said. “What that looks like I don’t know.”

Offensive lineman Luke Shively was hurt against Ball State, but practiced Sunday and was expected to see limited practice reps Monday.

Unless something unforeseen happens, Carey said he expects Shively to play Wednesday as well.

Work like a dog: The game Wednesday against Western Michigan will be the sixth in the past 24 days for the Huskies. It will be their second short turnaround of the season – the six-day week is the second shortest since a five-day week at the start of midweek play.

Carey said it boils down to being healthy, feeling fresh and being mentally ready to go.

“That means as much as any X and O you can do at this point in the season,” Carey said. “I like the way [the players have] attacked the practices. They’ve been a little shorter, but they have to be.”

He also said the mental aspect has a direct relationship with the physical one.

“The way you attack that mentally dictates a lot of how your body feels,” Carey said. “They’ve attacked that very, very well.”

Rising up the charts: Tre Harbison was the fifth running back on the preseason depth chart. He led the team in carries last week, and has 20 touches for 109 yards and a score over the past two weeks.

Although running back Jordan Huff has been dinged up slightly, Carey said that’s not the main reason for Harbison’s increased playing time – Huff didn’t play two weeks ago against Toledo, but had six carries for 57 yards against Ball State.

“That’s not because of the opportunity, but because of the hard work he did before the injury,” Carey said. “So I’m really excited for him in the future.”

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