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Carifio: Young NIU defense showing real signs of progress

Daveren Rayner tries to wrap up a Ball State runner Wednesday in NIU's game against Ball State.
Daveren Rayner tries to wrap up a Ball State runner Wednesday in NIU's game against Ball State.

When NIU was getting pressure on Ball State senior quarterback Drew Plitt, protected by an offensive line with three seniors on it, it was true freshmen for NIU that were breaking through.

The Huskies finished Wednesday's 31-25 loss at Ball State with three sacks. Freshmen made 2.5 of them.

Devon O'Malley and Devin Lafayette each had a full sack, while Pierce Oppong was credited with a half a sack.

All three are true freshmen recording a sack against Plitt, against senior center Anthony Tood and senior tackles Kaleb Slaven and Curtis Blackwell.

"They came out with a mindset to get after the offensive line," second-year coach Thomas Hammock said. "Guys made some plays early. We just have to find out how to make those plays throughout the game. They started full sliding the protection to try and protect the quarterback a little more, which minimized our opportunities."

So while the Huskies fell to 0-3 on the year, and prospects of picking up more than one win this year have shrunk – the Huskies have to face Western Michigan (3-0), Toledo (2-1) and Eastern Michigan (0-3) – the defense continues to look as if it's going to be a force in the future.

Just look at O'Malley. His sack was a big one early. Ball State had marched into NIU territory after the Huskies opened the game with a touchdown. Facing second-and-15 on the 17-yard-line after a false start, O'Malley got to Plitt for an 8-yard loss. Ball State missed a field goal to conclude the drive.

And, oh yeah, that was the first tackle of O'Malley's career.

"He's a young man, a walk-on, who has gotten better," Hammock said. "He's got some size, some physicality and some punch. I thought we did a good job getting that sack. We played with energy. We had a couple of nice hits on the quarterback in the first half."

Even though the future is bright for the Huskie defense, it doesn't mean the present is too shabby. Granted, NIU hasn't given up fewer than 30 points in a game yet – although the offense has allowed four turnovers to be returned for touchdowns, something that obviously inflates scoring stats.

And for the most part, they are holding teams and individuals below their season numbers, although three games (or even six when the season is over) is a small sample size.

But this team has playmakers. It's something that's been lacking the past year or two. Dillon Thomas showed it off in the third quarter Wednesday, coming up with a pick in the endnzone to preserve a 14-14 tie at the time.

"That was a good relief, and it's a good statement to what our defense is capable of," Thomas said. "We're capable of withstanding the downpour."

It was the third interception of the year for the Huskies, as Thomas joins Jordan Gandy and Jordan Hansen with picks.

In fact, Gandy – a sophomore transfer from South Dakota State and a DeKalb graduate – ended up leading the Huskies with 11 tackles, with Lafayette adding 10. Probably not the best sign that two members of the backfield led that category, but keep in mind Kyle Pugh was ejected in the second half because of targeting. The linebacker was leading the team with nine tackles.

Fourth in tackles Wednesday? Daveren Rayner, who had six. And he's, you guessed it, a true freshman.

So the Huskies might be staring down the barrel of a 0-6 or 1-5 season, but there's every reason to think it's a blip and not the start of a fall off a cliff, thanks to some very young playmakers on the defense.

• Eddie Carifio is Daily Chronicle sports editor. Write to him at ecarifio@shawmedia.com, and follow him on Twitter @DDCEddieCarifio.

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