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NIU football: Huskies in spoiler role against Broncos

W. Michigan can clinch spot in MAC title game with victory over NIU

Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock watches the action against Eastern Michigan last week at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock watches the action against Eastern Michigan last week at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Western Michigan has a prospective title to play for. Northern Illinois is looking to play spoiler.

Between those two facts, the chance to send out the seniors with a victory and the chance to enter the offseason on the heels of a home win, coach Thomas Hammock said he thinks there’s plenty of motivation for the Huskies (4-7, 3-4 Mid-American Conference) on Tuesday in their season finale.

“If you’re a competitor, and that’s what these young men want to become, competitors, anytime you step on the football field, you want to win,” Hammock said. “And to me, that’s the motivation, an opportunity to go win. You look at it, it’s college football; 50% of teams will win their last game, and 50% are going to [lose]. You want to have positive momentum heading into the offseason of learning from a win and have an opportunity to stop a team from going to a championship game, I think should be enough motivation in itself.”

Western Michigan (7-4, 5-2) needs a win over the Huskies, or a Central Michigan loss to Toledo, to ensure a trip to the MAC Championship Game against Miami.

The Broncos have won three straight games heading into Tuesday. They are led by LeVante Bellamy, a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award given to the top running back in the FBS. Bellamy is tops in the FBS with 21 rushing touchdowns and is 10th in rushing yards with 1,284.

“He’s fast, he’s physical, he’s got great vision, he’s got great feet,” Hammock said. “He can stop, start, he can jump-cut, he can catch the football, and the interesting thing is they rotate him quite a bit.”

Quarterback Jon Wassink leads the top scoring offense in the MAC (36 ppg), and the Broncos average 467.2 yards a game, tops in the MAC. Wassink has thrown for 247.2 yards a game and has 20 passing touchdowns.

“This quarterback runs it better than you think,” Hammock said about Wassink, who has 267 yards rushing. “He’s got at least a 50-yard run that I’ve seen on tape. He can run. He’s a better athlete than I think people think, and we’ve got to be concerned with him as a passer first and foremost.”

The Broncos enter the game knowing a win is all it takes. Coach Tim Lester wants his team to be aggressive from the get-go.

“You watch a lot of these games, and they all come down to turnovers,” Lester said. “I’m a big believer in touchdowns and turnovers, and that’s why we’re really aggressive in the red zone because I believe touchdowns matter more than field goals.”

For senior NIU defensive lineman Marcus Kelly, the injury that kept him out of spring ball gave him a new perspective on football, even as he was prepared to enter his fifth year on campus.

“I’ve been doing this since, I don’t know, third grade along with a lot of these guys, and guys that are from the South, even longer than that,” Kelly said. “It’s part of who you are. Missing spring, that kind of, I don’t want to say put the joy back into it, but it made me miss it and made me cherish the time I did have on the field.”

Junior Corey Lersch is among a group of tight ends looking to play for the seniors. Lersch has adapted and become primarily a special teams player this season.

“Last year when two guys got hurt, I had to play tight end,” Lersch said. “I was grateful for having the playing time here, and this year the guys are back. Mitch [Brinkman] and [Daniel] Crawford are both great tight ends. My role this year is special teams, and my mind-set when I go out there is, ‘I’m to give it everything I can.’ ”

Kelly has found himself pondering a conundrum many athletes face. Many do not bat an eye when told that their playing career will fly by. He said the 2015 home opener against UNLV feels “a thousand years ago,” but that he can “remember it like it was yesterday.”

Now he’s trying to find a way to convey to younger players to cherish their moments with the team.

“How do I change up the message?” Kelly said, posing a question. “How do I get them to cherish the time that they have? But I love this senior class. We’re pretty close. We’ve been through a lot. Like Tre [Harbison] said, we’ve been through 5-7 seasons, we’ve been through MAC championship seasons. We’ve experienced the peaks and valleys of college football, for sure.”

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