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NIU Football: Hammock says Illinois State game 'Played exactly how I thought it would'

Tight game late gives Huskies chance to work out kinks and improve

NIU receiver Cole Tucker heads up the field in first-half action Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.
NIU receiver Cole Tucker heads up the field in first-half action Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

DeKALB — Playing a FCS opponent didn't change anything about what Thomas Hammock expected from his first game as head coach.

Saturday's 24-10 win over Illinois State went how he said it would since camp started – a one-possession game in the fourth quarter.

“The game played exactly how I thought it would play to be honest with you," Thomas Hammock said. "Our first game as a staff, I thought we had a couple timeouts early that we needed to use to make sure they didn’t fake on special teams. But besides that, I thought the operation of everything we did was excellent and I want to say how resilient our players were. They didn’t panic. They didn’t flinch and they played in the moment.”

What Hammock saw that he didn't expect was for Ross Bowers to be knocked down on his first snap as a Huskie.

But he did like what he saw in how Bowers bounced back.

“I saw a quarterback take command of the offense," Hammock said. "I saw him getting more comfortable. It’s always interesting when the quarterback gets hit early how he responds. That sack on the first play of the game, what you saw was a guy settle into the pocket.”

With NIU, like Illinois State, having just three points at the half and having not scored on its first two drives of the second, Hammock said there was no thought to taking Bowers out and instead using Marcus Childers, the starter of the last two seasons.

“You want your quarterback to be comfortable, not looking over his shoulder and that’s why we went with Bowers," Hammock said.

The Huskies rode Tre Harbison heavily in the run game to the tune of 99 rushing yards on 23 carries. Marcus Jones and Jordan Nettles toted the football just two times each.

Hammock said he thought the balance in terms of pass versus run in number of plays called was about where it needed to be with 35 rushes and 33 passes.

"It’s what we want to do," Hammock said. "We want to have a balanced offense and keep people off balance so they can’t stack the box in the run game. Based off playing too many people back deep, then we can run the football, but we have to be more effective in the run game. We’ve got to make more people miss. We’ve got to get more yards after contact at the running back position. And we’ve got to create more seams up front.”

After some early offensive line trouble and some nagging bumps and bruises to right guard Brayden Patton and center CJ Perez, the former which pressed Nate Veloz into more action at right guard, Perez was pleased with how the Huskies responded.

“We’re happy with some of the stuff we did, but there’s a lot of room for improvement," Perez said.

Andrew Starr stepped in at left tackle for more second half repetitions than Marques Cox. Starr was listed on the depth chart as a starter for Saturday's game at Utah.

“The big thing that we need to do, we need to strain up front. We’ve got to strain to finish, Hammock said. "That’s in everything we do. The run game, in the pass game, we don’t want to get the quarterback hit as many times as he got hit, so we’ve got to continue to strain and play through that … whistle.”

Jalen McKie, who was named MAC West defensive player of the week for his 32-yard fourth quarter interception return for a touchdown, had a simple explanation for the late play.

“I was just at the right place, right time," McKie said. Coach (Aaron Wilkins) always told me work on your technique, trust your technique, and get in the right position. The plays will come and that’s just what happened.”

Adding depth at the defensive ends spot was Marcus Kellly, who recorded a first-half tackle for loss. Kelly didn't play in the spring, and moved to an end spot after previously having played defensive tackle.

“He played well," Matt Lorbeck said. "He had a nice tackle for loss and gave us another guy, more deep on the depth chart. It was nice seeing him out there.”

With AP 10th-ranked Utah on the horizon, Hammock and the players expressed excitement about playing against the vaunted Utes defense and running back Zach Moss, who compiled a 187-yard rushing performance in a 30-12 win over BYU.

“I think they get excited to play," Hammock said. "Who doesn’t want an opportunity to play at a higher level as far as a Power 5 team."

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