DeKALB – Dillon Thomas was aching to get on the field early in the season. In a talented room of experienced safeties, the sophomore approached the Huskies’ coaching staff about trying his hand at cornerback.
“I came to them begging,” Thomas said. “I’m like, ‘Let me just try to see what I can do to get on the field somewhere,’ because … I was a safety to start out. The safety room was deep – four, five seniors – and the corner room had a bunch of injuries, and I’m like, ‘Let me just see what I can do.’”
Thomas was targeted heavily as he was the focus of opposing offenses for the past four weeks of the season. Thomas responded on his final defensive snap of the season in Northern Illinois’ 17-14 win over Western Michigan (7-5, 5-3) by causing a fumble to give the ball back to the Huskies.
“They’ve thrown at him every week, and he goes out, he’s making double-digit tackles as a corner, and to go out there and make that play and rip at the ball, those are the things that we worked on in the spring, ripping at the ball,” coach Thomas Hammock said. At the most critical moment, he trusted his technique, he trusted his fundamentals, and he saw the result.”
The redshirt sophomore from Kansas City raced to the Huskies’ bench after realizing Mykelti Williams had recovered the ball, took off his helmet and was surrounded by teammates.
“I just feel like it was this climb, coming from the bottom,” Thomas said. “Just competing every day and trying to show the coaches, wherever I can be of use, I just want to help out the team.”
Defensive ends Quintin Wynne and Matt Lorbeck were living in the backfield early in the game, and Jack Heflin was doing so late.
On the Broncos’ second possession of the fourth quarter, starting from their own 20, Heflin and Jordan Cole shared a tackle for loss that backed the Broncos up 7 yards. The next play, pressure came from both defensive ends, and when Western Michigan quarterback Jon Wassink retreated for more breathing room, Heflin, running up the middle on a defensive stunt, gobbled him up for a 15-yard-for-loss sack.
“We were playing complementary football on defense,” Heflin said. “We got sacks because the corners and the safeties and the coverage was on point. We just got after it.”
Western Michigan managed to go only 4 of 16 on third-down conversion tries, as Wynne and Lorbeck both got home on Wassink with pressure.
Lorbeck caused fumbles on the same Broncos drive in the final minutes of the first half, stripping Wassink before he completed a pass to Keith Mixon Jr. for a first down. Then, on the very next play, Lorbeck again stripped Wassink, with Trayshon Foster recovering the fumble this time.
The Huskies did not altogether stop LeVante Bellamy – the NFL prospect ran for 128 yards – but they limited his effectiveness, slowing his first- and second-down runs and forcing the Broncos to drop back and throw in miserably wet conditions.
Foster and Williams, both senior safeties, recovered fumbles in their final game as Huskies. Williams fell on the ball caused by Thomas on Western Michigan’s final drive of the game.
“Those guys have played, they have the most experience and they had a bunch of young guys around them, and they played their best ball tonight,” Hammock said. “What a way to go out. Trayshon has his degree. Mykelti is finishing up his degree, and [they are] great young men. Going to miss them.”
Wynne, who totaled seven tackles and two tackles for loss, played like a man with the realization that his playing days were coming to an end.
“When we were walking out before the game, [it] was kind of emotional,” Wynne said. “I knew, it probably kicked in probably around four weeks ago. It was kind of like, this is crazy; it’s almost over.”
And while it is, in fact, over for 18 NIU seniors after Tuesday, the Huskies went out with a win to finish 3-2 on the year at Huskie Stadium, 4-4 in the Mid-American Conference and 5-7 overall.