Defense holds late, preserves first NIU shutout in four years

James Ester: I think we’ve done some great things all season, and I think we’ve seen the fruits of our labor kind of come around

Northern Illinois' JaVaughn Byrd lines up Western Michigan's Donald Willis after a catch during their game Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, in Huskie Stadium at NIU in DeKalb.

DeKALB – The shutout was looking very much in danger.

The Northern Illinois University football team led Western Michigan by 24 in the fourth quarter, but still had the shutout going when the Broncos marched down to the NIU 15.

But the Huskies’ defense would not be denied, shutting down the Broncos on four straight plays to preserve their first shutout in four years with a 24-0 victory.

“The whole entire drive, it was kind of like don’t give them anything,” said defensive lineman James Ester, who had a pass breakup and half a tackle for a loss in his final game at Huskie Stadium. “You don’t want to let that shutout go, especially at the end of the game like that. We let them get a few plays here and there, but at the end of the game we shored it up. It was huge for us to get that shutout.”

The win also kept the Huskies’ hopes for a bowl game alive, needing a win Nov. 25 at Kent State (1-9, 0-6) to secure a bowl bid. It eliminated Western Michigan from bowl contention.

NIU (5-6, 4-3) was cruising, with Kanon Woodill making a field goal with 11:29 left in the game, pushing the NIU lead to 24-0. The Broncos (4-7, 3-4) took over on their own 8-yard line. But they converted three third downs of 6 or more yards to get down to the NIU 15.

Ray Thomas got a sack on first down, then three more incompletions later the Huskies preserved the shutout.

The Huskies’ defense has been a strength all year, but Tuesday they held the Broncos to 1.8 yards per carry, 24 total rushing yards and 206 yards of total offense – the fewest they’ve surrendered, and the sixth time they’ve held someone to fewer than 300 yards.

“This defense has been on a different level this year, the best since I got here,” Ester said. “I think we’ve done some great things all season, and I think we’ve seen the fruits of our labor kind of come around. It means everything, especially being my last game at Huskie Stadium.”

Heading into the game, coach Thomas Hammock said he was prepared for the Broncos and their penchant for going for it on fourth down. They had attempted 36 fourth-down conversions on the season.

But the Broncos only went for it once, down 24 on a fourth-and-11 in the red zone. That includes a fourth-and-1 at the Western Michigan 25 early in the second quarter, which Hammock said normally is an attempt to go for it for WMU.

“They did have one fourth-and-1 and they punted,” Hammock said. “I think that’s a testament to our defense, because obviously they knew up front we have an interior defensive line that’s hard to block. That’s respect to our guys.”

Hammock said he remembers when he was running backs coach with the Baltimore Ravens, they would go for it on fourth down a lot. And the rival Pittsburgh Steelers always were prepared and knew what to do to get stops.

Lesson learned, he said.

“They always had a plan to stop it, and I think that’s important from an analytical standpoint.” Hammock said. “Now we can make the calls we need to make. They ran it a couple of times on third down too, right? And you have to understand that’s a two-down mentality. Obviously, our guys did a good job in those third-down situations when they’d try to run it and get into manageable fourth-down situations.”