DeKALB – NIU football coach Thomas Hammock said his Huskies always will fight and compete no matter the score.
Usually those words reek of empty coach speak – after all, not many coaches say their teams just quit when they are down, let’s say, 26 points in the second half.
But they’ve been demonstrably and emphatically true for the Huskies through two games this season, first with a last-minute drive to beat Georgia Tech after giving up a two-touchdown lead, then taking a one-point lead after being down 26 at home to Wyoming in an eventual 50-43 loss Saturday.
“We have to come back, and we will,” Hammock said. “I love the resiliency of our guys. They competed for four quarters. They didn’t let the score affect them one way or the other. They just got ready for the next play. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
This team has forged an identity through two games this season. Coming off an 0-6 season last year, most people had written off the Huskies. They were huge underdogs in their 22-21 win in the opener at Georgia Tech. And they were home dogs against Wyoming – although the Cowboys did end up covering the spread.
It’s worth pointing out here that I think far too many people are putting faith in a very small sample size of a season last year. To draw a conclusion from a six-game slate is a really weird concept, yet it’s something upon which everyone seems to have agreed. And it’s exacerbated by the fact this was a young NIU team playing an insane amount of freshmen with little to no practice time throughout the spring and fall.
But with a full practice slate in 2021, the team emerged as one that will not quit. Not as a platitude. But as a literal and provable fact. Wyoming linebacker Chad Muma returned a Rocky Lombardi interception for a score and a 42-16 lead midway through the third quarter Saturday.
So the Huskies simply went out and scored 27 straight points to lead late in the fourth.
“I just want to prove to [Hammock] what he says, we can do,” said second-year freshman running back Harrison Waylee, who rushed for 182 of his 179 yards in the second half Saturday (yes, that is correct). “When he said, ‘Head up, we’re still in this,’ I believed. I went out there and had to execute and trust what I’ve learned.”
The lead wasn’t meant to last, as Wyoming scored for the first time in more than 17 minutes of game time. And the NIU offense ran out of unbelievable comebacks as the Cowboys escaped DeKalb with a win.
“I know what type of team we have, and they showed it,” Hammock said. “We have to find a way to make plays at the end. We’re going to be in a lot of games like this. Sometimes it goes your way, and sometimes it doesn’t. But if it doesn’t, you have to learn from it and be prepared for the next opportunity.”
So this definitely is a team with holes. The defense has not played well, giving up almost 400 yards of offense to Wyoming. The offense got almost 500 yards Saturday, but three Lombardi interceptions led to 21 Wyoming points. Giving up interceptions and then not stopping anyone on defense is, quite obviously, a recipe for disaster.
When the team was down at one point in the second or third quarter, a smattering of boos emanated from the stands. It wasn’t even clear those boos were intended for the Huskies, and it didn’t seem like something of which to make note.
Hammock, however, noticed. He said the fans have to trust the Huskies’ will to never quit.
“From my perspective, when we got down, people got down on us,” Hammock said. “But what they need to realize is we’ll continue to fight, and we’ll continue to compete. They should understand that, and our players understand that. They have confidence, and hopefully our fans realize that as well.”
And these first two games have proved that to be 100% true.
• Eddie Carifio is the Daily Chronicle sports editor. Write to him at email@example.com.