DeKALB – The NIU football team heads home for the first time this year, facing Wyoming at 12:30 p.m. Saturday.
Both teams are coming off dramatic victories. The last time the teams faced one another was dramatic as well, with the Cowboys winning, 40-34, in three overtimes five years ago in Laramie, Wyoming.
Here are five things to watch for in the second all-time meeting between the two schools.
Close call for both teams in their openers
The Huskies were trailing in the final minute at Georgia Tech, and the Cowboys were behind in the closing seconds at home against FCS Montana State.
Both Wyoming and NIU pulled out the wins with late touchdowns.
The Huskies were down 21-14 but got into the end zone with 38 seconds remaining when Rocky Lombardi found Clint Ratkovich from 3 yards out. Lombardi then hit Tyrice Richie for the two-point conversion and the lead.
“You’ve got to keep straining,” linebacker Lance Deveaux said of what lessons from last week will help this week in the event of a close game. “Coach keeps talking about how this is going to be a close matchup, a 15-round fight. We just have to be the ones to keep fighting and be the last ones standing.”
NIU coach Thomas Hammock said the whole offseason for the Huskies was geared toward creating a tough atmosphere that would prepare the team for anything.
He said he expects Saturday to be a close one.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Hammock said. “I’m expecting the game to come down to the wire. Something we talked about this offseason was being able to win one-possession games. And to win those games, you have to embrace it. If we’re in the situation in the fourth quarter, we have to embrace the opportunity to make the play on either side of the ball. Hopefully we’re in that situation and our guys respond the right way. "
Wyoming was trailing Montana State 16-12 on its final drive. But Sean Chambers found Treyton Welch for a 22-yard touchdown with 47 seconds left for the lead.
“We played the end of the game with great composure,” Wyoming coach Craig Bohl said. “I thought our offensive line during two-minute was outstanding. And I thought Sean showed some poise and composure.”
Is NIU going to rely on the ground game again?
For all of the talk from the coaches of a deep running back room for the Huskies, only two running backs carried the ball, led by 27 carries for 144 yards for Harrison Waylee. Ratkovich also had seven carries for 13 yards.
Bohl called Waylee, a second-year freshman who led the Huskies in rushing last year, an outstanding runner.
And NIU offensive lineman J.J. Lippe agrees.
“Harry, he’s a dog, man,” Lippe said. “You watch him in practice, and he’s running as hard as he can. You can even ask Lance [Deveaux], there’s no quit in that guy. It makes it so much easier when you’ve got a guy like that behind you.”
Hammock said the plan of the attack against the Yellow Jackets was to hammer the ball on the ground. He didn’t say what this week’s attack would look like. He did say it would be whatever he thought the Huskies had to do to win.
Wyoming gave up 321 yards last week but only 121 on the ground on 30 Montana State carries.
“We’re not a cookie-cutter offense,” Hammock said. “What we are going to do is look for ways to give us the best advantage to win the game. Last week, that was the game plan. We still are formulating the game plan for Wyoming, and we’ll see what gives us the best chance to win.”
Lombardi finished the game last week 11 of 17 for 136 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He completed passes to six different receivers, with touchdowns to Miles Joiner and Ratkovich.
“The great thing about last week was we had receivers on the sideline yelling and screaming for guys,” Hammock said. “They were reminding guys about ball security. All the things that go into being a team. At the end of the day, if you win, everybody celebrates together. We’re not into what we’re doing or how we’re doing it. We just want one more point than our opponent and that’s what we’ll do this week.”
Will the offensive line continue to improve?
With the running game so heavily featured against the Yellow Jackets, the offensive line obviously was a key part. And it stood out to Bohl.
“They’re a real physical team and that’s really changed from last year to this year,” Bohl said. “They come off the ball and smack you around.”
NIU averaged 3.9 yards a carry in the win, and the Huskies didn’t allow a sack in the game either. The only rushing play that lost yardage for the Huskies was a jet sweep by Richie.
Lippe said he saw room for improvement for the line, and Hammock said with the experienced nature of the line that is sure to come.
“We got guys that have experience,” Hammock said. “We have guys that have played together. And also the guy that started at left guard, earned a spot. J.J. Lippe. He’s a new starter for us but you know what? He went out and earned the job. He earned the job by the way he practiced and prepared.”
Hammock said the Huskies kept things simple to keep that Georgia Tech linemen from feasting on Lombardi.
“We have complete confidence in our offensive line,” Hammock said. “They’re a year older, a year stronger, a year more developed. They gave us a great opportunity. And part of the game plan was not to put ourselves in the position where Georgia Tech’s D-ends would have opportunities to get sacks. ... If we sat back there and threw the ball 40 times, they probably would have had four, five sacks against us.”
Wyoming is going to want to run the ball a lot
NIU ran the ball 42 times Saturday in its win, and the Cowboys had 43 rushes for 151 yards.
Xazavian Valladay – a junior from Matteson – was a first-team selection in the Mountain West last year. He ran 19 times for 77 yards and a score. Chambers added 14 carries for 51 yards.
Bohl called the run game’s performance disappointing and surprising.
“The one area I was disappointed in was our traditional tailback run game,” Bohl said. “I don’t think that was where it needed to be. We’ve got a stable of some excellent running backs, so we’ve got to clean some things up there. Particularly with the offensive line and some perimeter blocking.”
Hammock said Wyoming has an identity of a grind-it-out running team, and he doesn’t expect that to change. NIU allowed 273 rushing yards against the Yellow Jackets.
“Wyoming is going to run the football. They are going to line up and throw the football,” Hammock said. “You’re not going to change their philosophy. We have to make sure we have great discipline, great eye discipline. I think last week they kept it a little vanilla. ... They want to run A-gap power, power read. They want to slip guys on verticals.”
Like with Jamyr Gibbs (20-99) and Jordan Mason (15-96) last week for Georgia Tech, Hammock said Valladay is another tough back.
“He’s a dynamic player,” Hammock said. “Two weeks in a row we’ve seen some dynamic backs. This guy is physical. He’s a slasher. I think he almost jumped over someone last week completely. We have to be all hands on deck to try to corral him as much as possible because he’s a big part of their offense.”
How much of a home-field advantage will NIU have?
Bohl was happy with his home crowd last week and Hammock said he liked the experience at George Tech.
Now, Hammock said, it’s the NIU fans’ turn.
“I hope our fans show up early and are loud and create a tremendous home-field advantage,” Hammock said. “Looking at Wyoming’s home game last week, they were wearing the school colors and showing school pride. That’s what we want to do. I believe in the cardinal and black. I hope people show up in those colors. We’ve got some athletes that are working really hard to make them super proud.”
Deveaux said he also hopes the crowd gets large and rowdy.
“Having everybody back at Huskie Stadium at full capacity is definitely going to help us, be an advantage,” Deveaux said. “I just tell the guys just enjoy it. Don’t let it psych you out. Lock in on your keys and just enjoy the environment.”
Bohl said it was good to see again after a year of mostly limited crowds across the country.
“It was great to be back to some normalcy with fans in the stands,” Bohl said. “It was a great college atmosphere. It was loud. And I know all over the country was like it was here.”