MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. – Northern Illinois will likely have more than two weeks off before it plays again, but don’t expect Sutton Smith to take any time off.
The redshirt sophomore defensive end said after the Huskies’ 31-24 loss Friday at Central Michigan that he’d be going immediately back to the film room once he returned to DeKalb. There are things he wants to correct before his team plays in its bowl game, which will be announced next Sunday.
NIU’s defense gave up 31 points in the second half to the Chippewas, including 24 unanswered. The Bednarik Award semifinalist said he wants to pinpoint exactly why the Huskies (8-4, 6-2 MAC) couldn’t build off their 17-0 halftime lead and a tremendous start to the game.
“People just weren’t making plays,” Smith said. “We got to get our eyes right. I think it was a lack of execution. We’re just going to have to look at the film and see what everyone did wrong. We won’t know what we did wrong until we watch the film.”
The Huskies couldn’t have asked for more out of their defense in the first half. They sacked CMU quarterback Shane Morris three times and held him to only 68 yards. CMU’s leading rushers after two quarters were Jonathan Ward and Romello Ross, who had only 5 yards apiece. Morris had minus-43.
What’s more, NIU linebacker Jawuan Johnson opened the game with a 37-yard interception he returned for a score. He dropped back and baited Morris into making an errant throw over the middle. Johnson received a few blocks from his teammates and then dove into the end zone down the near sideline. Johnson declined to be interviewed for this story.
“[Plays like that] motivate us,” Smith said. “That was a [heck] of a play. That’s the type of stuff we need on defense. I think there’s a lot more [like that] in us.”
NIU coach Rod Carey liked what he saw, too.
“It was great,” Carey said.” It was a perfect drop. He made a play with his feet, and he got some help to get into the end zone, which is a great tone-setter for us.”
One would have expected more plays like that from the Huskies in the second half, but it was Morris who lead the Chippewas to a comeback, threading three TD passes, including the game-winner to Corey Willis on a 29-yard pass on fourth-and-4. That play finished off a five-play, 75-yard drive.
The Huskies’ defense had no answers.
“We gave up a big drive there and a big fourth down,” Carey said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t respond. ... [Morris] is a good player. I don’t take anything away from in him in any way, shape or form.”
Carey said the Huskies will be hungry entering bowl season, but they’ll also have a “good” attitude when correcting their mistakes against CMU.
“Obviously, we got another game to come out and get to nine wins in a season, and I think that’s a big deal,” he said. “Not many teams in this country can get to 9-10 wins, and we got a chance to get to nine.”
For Smith, perhaps more important than NIU getting nine wins is proving his defense is capable of playing four complete quarters.
“That second half was not us, clearly,” Smith said. “We’re going to bounce back just as fast as anybody else. I think we’ll have a very successful bowl game, and we got a lot of stuff to fix.”