ATHENS, Ohio – Cole Tucker bounced back from an early drop to have a career day in Northern Illinois’ 39-36 second-half comeback win over Ohio.
“I feel very comfortable with him,” Huskies quarterback Ross Bowers said of Tucker. “He’s such an intelligent player on top of being a very good athlete, so it’s so nice. He thinks kind of like a quarterback, and when you have that chemistry and also an offense like this one that everyone adjusts to coverage, it’s hard for a receiver to get covered if it’s not man-to-man.”
Whatever offensive struggles NIU (2-4, 1-1 Mid-American Conference) had in the first half of the 2018 season, the Huskies appeared to have left them in the past Saturday. Tucker, a DeKalb High School graduate, and Bowers have found a connection that was on display in NIU’s win over the preseason MAC favorites.
An improved running game in the second half helped open up the Huskies’ aerial attack. Thinking like a quarterback helped Tucker as well.
“Getting [Ohio] into the looks we wanted, not letting them determine what we’re going to do, us coming out making them come out and adjust to us was the big thing,” Tucker said.
“I think he relies on me pretty well,” Tucker said of Bowers. “He places the ball great, so I mean the scheme gets me open, too. The plays they call get me in the right spots.”
Tucker, a redshirt sophomore, had seven receptions for 114 yards and several key receptions on the go-ahead drive in the third quarter. A third-and-10 reception for 20 yards moved the chains on the drive, and a fourth-and-1 catch for 10 yards to the Ohio 27 put the Huskies in position to take a 22-21 lead.
Tucker’s performance was complimented by the play of tight ends Mitchell Brinkman and Daniel Crawford. Brinkman had his first career 100-yard receiving game on five catches. Crawford also had five receptions.
“We knew going into the game, we were going to play the guy that plays consistent and is going to make the catch that needs to be made,” Huskies coach Thomas Hammock said. “[Tucker] started the game, he knew his number was going to be called, and he did exactly what he thought he was going to do.”
Bowers went 23-of-39 passing for 338 yards and a TD. Just as important, NIU, which entered the game last (130th) in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision in third-down conversion percentage, was 10 for 16 converting third downs Saturday. Tucker played a large part in that.
“[Bowers] been showing me this the whole time,” Hammock said. “It’s just a matter of us going out there and making the plays that we need to make. We’re not changing the plays. The plays are still consistent. But he’s gone out there and executed the plays, and the receivers made plays for the quarterback. And that’s what it takes. A receiver to make a play for the quarterback on third down.
The Huskies did not reach the red zone in five first-half possessions and had negative rushing yards against an Ohio defense that entered the game yielding 203 rushing yards a game and 5.2 yards a carry coming in. NIU finished the game with 169 yards rushing.
Even on the Huskies’ three most successful drives of the first half, which went 49, 44 and 42 yards, the Huskies were able to get only three points out of them, with the lone TD coming off an Adam Buirge TD after Corey Lersch blocked a punt.
Every game the Huskies have played in this season, they have had a half where they did not score a TD. While that again was the case Saturday, the Huskies reached the end zone four times in the second half.
Tucker heaped praise on the coaches for providing the offseason training and framework that found him running free in the secondary in the win.
“They’re helping me getting where I want to go without having a collision or a guy in the way there,” Tucker said. “The coaches are really helping me with that.”