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NIU football: Huskies' defense ready for CMU ground game

NIU defensive end Matt Lorbeck (9) chases down a fumble by Akron Zips quarterback Zach Gibson (15) in DeKalb Oct. 26.
NIU defensive end Matt Lorbeck (9) chases down a fumble by Akron Zips quarterback Zach Gibson (15) in DeKalb Oct. 26.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois defensive tackle Jack Heflin has a simple wish for Saturday's 11 a.m. game at Central Michigan.

“I don’t want it to rain; I want it to snow," Heflin said. "I want to play in a snow game so bad. I want it to be like a blizzard out there. That’s what I’m hoping for; that’d be so much fun.”

While Heflin loves playing in games where he knows the run is coming right at him, the NIU offense was in full-on rushing mode as the Huskies (3-5, 2-3) beat Akron, 49-0, last week.

The Chippewas (5-4, 3-2 Mid-American Conference) boast two running backs with more than 600 yards rushing apiece in Kobe Lewis and Jonathan Ward, the latter of which attended Bishop McNamara in Kankakee.

"He really plays behind his pads," NIU coach Thomas Hammock said of Ward. “He’s got good feet, good vision."

Hammock was complimentary of Chippewas receiver Kalil Pimpleton, who has 603 receiving yards and five touchdowns with 57 receptions.

“He’s not very big, but he can run; he’s aggressive, he’s competitive," Hammock said. "All those qualities that you think about when you’re thinking about good football players, he displays. They do a great job using him in a variety of ways. He’ll be out wide, he’ll be in the backfield, he’ll motion, he’ll shift; they try to hide him, and also he’s a punt returner. We have to make sure we have an eye on where he’s at at all times.”

An experienced CMU offensive line featuring the same starting lineup that has played together all season is a big part of the reason the Chippewas have made glowing strides offensively. A season ago, the Chippewas ranked near the bottom of the NCAA in numerous offensive stats.

CMU already has scored more points through nine games (252 points) than it did all of last season (180). The Chippewas never scored more than 24 points in a game a season ago and have done so five times this season.

“This game excites me because we’re going against a really good O-line, and as a competitor, that’s what you want," Heflin said.

Central Michigan coach Jim McElwain said that his team's run defense was something of an Achilles heel.

"[Hammock] does an outstanding job," McElwain said. "They’ve put a great staff together. You can tell by the way they’re playing that they’re playing the way he wants them to play. When you look at them, for us, being able to stop the run is going to be critical.”

Several projected forecasts for Saturday in Mount Pleasant have the gametime temperature sitting just below 40 degrees, with humidity and 10-plus mph winds listed.

Not that adverse weather conditions bothered the Huskies offensively against last week in a 49-0 home win against Akron, as NIU ran the ball 62 times. The type of Midwest weather the Huskies expect to face is none too dissimilar to what the Chippewas trudge through.

“Something that I talked to our staff about when I first took the job, we have to build an offense that can sustain in all weather,” Hammock said. “It gets windy in DeKalb. When it gets windy, it may be a quarter you can’t throw the ball, you have to run the ball. We have to be good enough that we can dominate up front, change the line of scrimmage.”

While the Huskies' receivers weren't heavily involved in the passing game against Akron – NIU threw the ball nine times – Cole Tucker had a positive takeaway about how he helped fulfill his role.

“It was probably our best game blocking down the field to help spring some runs for the running backs and quarterback," Tucker said. "I think we respond well, just knowing, 'Hey, we might not get the ball this game. It’s a bad game for us, but we’ve got to help our team win any way we can.' ”

Series history: CMU leads the all-time series 29-24-1. The Huskies the Chippewas 24-16 last season to snap a four-game losing streak to CMU.

Fast fact: The game between the Huskies and Chippewas has been decided by 10 points or less five of the last eight seasons, including one possession games the last three years.

Prediction: NIU 24, CMU 21

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