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Views: Meet the new NIU boss, same as the old NIU boss

The NIU band warms up the crowd for the football season opener on Saturday at Huskie Stadium.  Steve Bittinger - For Shaw Media
The NIU band warms up the crowd for the football season opener on Saturday at Huskie Stadium. Steve Bittinger - For Shaw Media

DeKALB – A capable but at times weird rushing game, an underachieving air attack with a lot of drops, and a strong defense that bailed out any offensive shortcomings.

If Saturday's 24-10 win against Illinois State laid a blueprint for this year's Northern Illinois football team, then it looks surprisingly a lot like last year.

Which is fine – and that should be stressed. I was the biggest defender of the program it seemed. MAC title and bowl berths for a program with the size and demographics of NIU should be great for any fan.

But when athletic director Sean Frazier introduced new coach Thomas Hammock earlier this year, he went out of the way to point out that wasn't enough. The program expects to be a New Year's Six team.

And through that lens, squeaking out a two-touchdown win in a game that was tied 3-3 well into the third quarter falls very short of expectations.

Make no mistake – the offense was less than impressive, especially early. The Huskies managed just two offensive touchdowns, both passes from Ross Bowers to Tyrice Richie.

The offensive line was porous, and Bowers was uncomfortable all night. There were times Bowers forced the ball into coverage – particularly to Dennis Robinson, who was targeted five times but made just two catches for 12 yards. The interception didn't seem to be his fault, with it tipped at the line.

When the line settled down, he settled down.

Hammock said there were no worries about the offense, saying he expects it to make the biggest jump of any part of the team between this week and next.

"i know what the offense is and i know where it's going," he said after the game."I like where we're at. I like our teams and I like our players."

But knowing what we know about Hammock, the performance of the run game was more of a head scratcher to me. Obviously, again, the line has a lot to do with that.

Tre Harbison had, on the surface, a good game with 99 yards on 23 carries. But he only had nine rushes at the half. His number was called not nearly enough early – something that was a recurring theme last year. Hammock is a running back guru as a former running back coach with the Baltimore Ravens and a former running back himself.

So seeing him call mostly runs straight up the gut with little variety was not what I thought we'd see. Or seeing Harbison go missing for long stretches, only to then be called three or four straight times in predictable situations with diminishing returns.

Like last year, the defense was stellar. Jalen McKie returned an interception for a touchdown, sealing the win. James Robinson is projected to be one of the best running backs in the MVC, maybe even all of FCS. He ran 13 times for 16 yards. Just like last year, the defense will be beastly.

"i never expect James Robinson to be shut down," ISU quarterback Brady Davis said. "That's a credit to them I wouldn't be surprised if we get a lot of rushing yards next week."

Again, it was a two-touchdown win. Take it, move on, and figure out how to move the ball against an even tougher Utah defense next week, which apparently Hammock is very confident about.

But with a very small sample size, this season could end up looking a lot like that past couple. Not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but well short of where the bar has been set, unfairly or not.

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