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NIU

Carter: Huskies' regression in 2019 less surprising in hindsight

In a season full of disappointment tempered by the occasional bright spots the Northern Illinois football team experienced extraordinary wins sandwiched between debilitating losses, with the losses providing a glimpse of what went wrong with the 2019 Huskies.

NIU followed two of its worst Mid-American Conference losses of the past decade with close, grind-it-out victories, but looked less prepared than in years past.

The 45-17 loss to Eastern Michigan and 48-10 loss to Central Michigan marked two of NIU’s worst conference defeats since 2008, and a departure from closer losses against Associated Press No. 6-ranked Utah and Southeastern Conference program Vanderbilt before MAC play.

NIU lost both of its trophy games in heartbreaking fashion to Ball State and Miami, as the offense mostly fell flat in both games. The Huskies lost leads in both contests.

Year 1 under coach Thomas Hammock was a regression, even if the Huskies were only several possessions from a winning record. Although the season’s outcome could have greatly changed given a few timely scores, not executing as a championship team should sealed the Huskies’ fate.

Hammock and his staff voiced the need for more playmakers in their personnel, while also claiming that whatever shortfalls the Huskies were experiencing were on Hammock alone.

For all the championship experience among the returning players, the Huskies frequently looked disorganized early in the season, especially on special teams. NIU was so quick to try to establish quarterback Ross Bowers through the air that it took weeks to rediscover the ground attack that formed the team’s offensive identity in 2018, which was odd enough, given Hammock’s background with running backs.

In a year when everything seemed to go wrong, the Huskies managed to break even (4-4) in the MAC and avoid their first losing conference record since 2007.

Maybe it should have been more obvious that after losing perhaps the best edge rusher in MAC history in Sutton Smith and one of the better offensive linemen in NIU history in Max Scharping that the expectations for the team should have been tempered.

Hammock said that the 2019 season was more one of evaluation than he would have hoped partly because of injuries, although he often spoke of the refrain that “nobody cares,” about the Huskies’ injuries when playing them.

“I was hoping we would have the ability to stay healthy during the season and maximize this year, but it gave us an opportunity to evaluate the program, to look at some areas we can help upgrade certainly on our team. Me as a coach, you’re dealing with 100-something young men, you’re dealing with a staff, you’re dealing with athletic trainers, equipment and just learning to understand the way to go based on the way you are. It was a great learning experience for me.”

For all the hype of a more explosive offense, the Huskies improved their points-a-game output from 20.3 points (121st in the Football Bowl Subdivision) in 2018, to 23.4 points (104th), but hardly achieved the type of explosive and dynamic increase that Hammock and members of the NIU offense suggested was possible.

NIU averaged 322.3 yards a game on 4.5 yards a play in 2018, and 368.8 yards a game and 5.3 yards a play in 2019. The Huskies’ ability to strike gold offensively was noticeably better through the air, shown by touchdowns of 71 and 68 yards by Tyrice Richie, 74 yards by Spencer Tears against Utah and the use of Marcus Childers as a change-of-pace runner.

The Huskies injury problems that hamstrung their defense began before the season started, as NIU finished the season without three linebackers who were set to start before Week 1.

NIU went on to lose cornerbacks Mark Aitken and Antwain Walker as well as redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis for the season. Numerous others, such as center C.J. Perez, defensive tackles Jack Heflin and Ben LeRoy, and defensive end Quintin Wynne, all missed time because of injury.

This affected the defense in particular.

“I’ve seen, like, maybe this many injuries on a team, but really never just on one side of the ball, where we’ve seen to some degree get ravaged,” defensive coordinator Derrick Jackson said.

Bowers, brought in to orchestrate the turnaround the NIU coaching staff was looking for in a new offense, showed glimpses of what fans were hoping for in the air, only to struggle early because of a combination of an inexperienced offensive line and some timing issues with wide receivers. Bowers was dealt a bad hand, finding himself in the concussion protocol twice and missed three of NIU’s final four games.

What a team doesn’t expect through such injury situations is heading into the next season with more depth. Linbacker Kyle Pugh plans to return next season after taking a medical redshirt this season and linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. is eligible to redshirt.

“When you look at your two-deep next year, especially at the linebacker position, you’ve got five or six guys that’ll [have] played a significant amount of snaps,” Hammock said. “That’s exciting for us.”

The loss of running back Tre Harbison, who immediately will be eligible to play as a graduate transfer elsewhere, leaves the primary running back spot wide open heading into 2020, and no one should be surprised to see new faces in skill positions next season and on defense, which loses a handful of seniors who played a significant amount of time.

Even in keeping The Hard Way, an era of change clearly is in the works, and it’s up to Hammock’s crew to prove his methodology is what will get the Huskies back to a championship level and beyond, just as Hammock and athletic director Sean Frazier have claimed will be reality since January.

The MAC was as wide open as it has ever been this season. That may be the case next season, as well.

The Huskies must prove early next year, beyond having better luck with injuries, that they’re in the conversation for a trip back to Ford Field in Detroit.

• Kaleb Carter is a sports writer for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at kacarter@shawmedia.com or follow him on Twitter @Kaleb_M_Carter.

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