DeKALB – After falling down early, NIU was driving down the field with the chance to take the lead for the first time.
Then the scoops-and-scores came, and Buffalo was ending a 12-game losing streak to the Huskie dating to 1968 in emphatic fashion, overpowering some strong debuts from NIU newcomers in a 49-30 NIU loss on Wednesday at Huskie Stadium.
Not only did the Bulls return two fumbles for touchdowns in the third quarter of the season opener for both teams, but they also returned an interception for a score in the fourth quarter.
"We can't spot a team 21 points and turn the ball over like that," Hammock said. "But we fought for four quarters. What a great learning opportunity for us tonight."
The Huskies trailed Buffalo, 21-16, in the third but forced a Buffalo punt to start the half. The Huskies moved down to the Buffalo 41-yard line before quarterback Ross Bowers fumbled, recovered by Tim Terry for a 46-yard score.
On the next drive, running back Erin Collins fumbled, and Isaiah King returned it 42 yards for a 35-16 lead. After the Buffalo offense added a score, Kadofi Wright returned Bowers' pick 65 yards for a 49-16 lead.
"If we don't turn the ball over and give them 21 points on turnovers, I'm curious to see what the game looks like," Hammock said. "We obviously have to be better on offense. But I like the demeanor of our young men. Most teams make a big jump from Week 1 to Week 2, and I look forward to seeing what we can do."
Five true freshmen started for the Huskies, with Trayvon Rudolph having a big impact. He averaged 30.2 yards on five kickoff returns and had two catches for 56 yards. His 151 yards on kickoff returns was more than NIU had as a team all of last season. The Huskies had 11 kick returns for 141 yards in 2019.
"I feel like I did a good job but have to get better at certain things," Rudolph said.
He also had a potential touchdown pass go through his hands.
"He's an explosive player," Hammock said. "I'd love to see him catch that touchdown. It would have been a great night. But he gives us something in the return game and something at wide receiver. He's a playmaker. People don't understand. It's doesn't matter how old you are. He's a walk-on, earned a scholarship, made plays for us tonight and will continue to do so down the line."
Jordan Hansen made an interception for the Huskies. Linebacker Nick Rattin put pressure on Buffalo quarterback Kyle Vantrease, causing an underthrow. Hansen, a true freshman safety, came up with the pick.
"Everyone likes to talk about how young and inexperienced we are," Rattin said. "Be we've got good players that have come a long way and will be big players for us."
True freshman Harrison Waylee got a lot of carries late, finishing with a team-best 66 yards to go with 13 carries, second most on the team.
The Huskies also played three quarterbacks, with transfers Andrew Haidet and Rodney Thompson playing in the fourth quarter. Each had a rushing touchdown, with Haidet scoring on a sneak and Thompson going 13 yards.
Hammock said the team's fourth quarterback, true freshman Dustin Fletcher, is close to being healthy.
"We have four quarterbacks that can move the team in the right direction," Hammock said. "We wanted to give everybody reps – and not practice reps."
Hammock has talked about the importance of moving on from bad plays and said that obviously did not happen in the third quarter.
"When bad plays happen, you have to flush it and move on," Hammock said. "What we saw was a snowball effect. ... That was a hard-hitting defense, so I have to credit them. They were getting helmets on the ball. But at the same time, our job is to protect the ball."