Carifio: Bold is beautiful for NIU in upset of Georgia Tech

Bold play calling leads to big wins – it’s the one thing about football I believe more than anything else.

So when push came to shove, Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock made one of the boldest calls a coach can make, going for two in the closing seconds for the win over Georgia Tech instead of taking the tie.

And it worked.

Rocky Lombardi found Tyrice Richie for the two-point conversion, and the Huskies went down to Georgia looking for a boneyard victory to steal and did so, winning 22-21.

After the game, Hammock said it actually wasn’t a bold call. In a game management meeting Friday night, he said the staff talked about how with new overtime rules, going for two makes more sense.

“If you get an opportunity to win it in the normal game, go for it,” Hammock said. “Otherwise you go one overtime, the next overtime you have to go for two. and the third overtime the ball goes at 3. So it’s a one-play game. ... It’s not boldness. It was preplanned.”

Preplanned or not, it’s not the call a lot of coaches make. And whether he made it Friday, at the start of the game-winning drive or as a last-minute decision, it was a gutsy call. And it absolutely was the right call.

Which, admittedly, is a lot easier to write after a win, but is just as true if it didn’t pan out. But pan out it did in a big way.

Then there was the first half. While not exactly living in the hurry-up the whole first two quarters, the Huskies (1-0) did switch up the tempo and catch the Yellow Jackets off guard. Some of Harrison Waylee’s biggest runs early were on up-tempo plays.

Up 14-0 in the second, the Huskies were cruising. Waylee was clicking. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi wasn’t being called upon to do anything but be a game manager. And the defense was bending but not breaking.

The offense in the second half did break. The Huskies punted four times and fumbled in their first five possessions of the half. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech scored touchdowns on its first two drives of the fourth.

For as big as the Huskies’ final drive to score a touchdown was, their defensive drive that preceded that was just as big. NIU forced a three-and-out on the heels of the Yellow Jackets doing pretty much what they wanted offensively.

Daveren Rayner had a big stop on Jahmyr Gibbs on first down, then Nick Rattin and Michael Kennedy brought him down after 2 yards to set up a third-and-long. He ended up finishing with 99 rushing yards. The third-down pass was way short, and NIU got the ball back with 2:42 left.

Hammock certainly was aware of how this game was received. They were 19-point underdogs but never believed that, he said. After they fell down 21-14 and gave the ball back to Georgia Tech, he said people probably said, “Here we go.” But they never stopped believing, he said.

So the Huskies get their boneyard win, a win at a Power Five school, for the first time since winning at BYU in 2018 and for the first time under Hammock.

Even though they made the decision ahead of time, it proved to be the most important one they made all night.

And shows that however you get there, aggressive, gutsy calls are usually the right ones.