After opening Mid-American Conference play with a win against Eastern Michigan, the NIU football team heads to Toledo’s Glass Bowl, where it has won four of the past five meetings.
Here’s a look at how the Huskies (3-2, 1-0 MAC) match up against the Rockets (3-2, 1-0). Toledo won last year’s game in DeKalb, 41-24.
Scouting the Rockets
Toledo has won two straight, opening MAC play two weeks ago with a 22-12 win over preseason favorite Ball State, then winning at UMass, 42-7.
The Rockets enter the game second in the MAC in total defense and lead in scoring defense at 16.6 points a game. Outside linebacker Jamal Hines lead the team with 31 tackles and is one of three Rockets with two sacks.
“It’s a program that’s been a thorn in our side in years’ past and one we know this game means a ton to,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said of NIU. “They’re playing really well right now, aided by a great rushing attack.”
Three keys to the game
The Huskies need to respond to multiple injuries at all positions
Coach Thomas Hammock does not discuss injuries, but the team has been missing numerous players, starting with running back Harrison Waylee. The freshman was on his way to another 100-yard rushing game when he left in the first half against Eastern Michigan and didn’t return.
“I’m not an injury guy, so we’re not going to do that,” Hammock said. “We’re going to have 22 guys on the bus ready to play. We’re going to have 70 guys on the bus ready to play. We were missing guys last week, and the next guys stepped up.”
Waylee is listed on the team’s two-deep chart as the starter for this week. His backup is listed as Antario Brown, a true freshman who was on the scout team a few weeks ago but ran for 100 yards against the Eagles, a 27-20 win.
And it’s not only Waylee. Through injury or something else, the team last week was without four players who have played at least three games this year: running backs Erin Collins and Jay Ducker, linebacker Daveren Rayner and wide receiver Cole Tucker.
That doesn’t include players such as safety Devin Lafayette and tight end Miles Joiner, who both started against Georgia Tech and haven’t played since, or linebacker Kyle Pugh, who was hurt in the spring and will miss the season.
But players have been stepping up. Dillon Thomas, converted from defensive back, shifted to linebacker, recorded two sacks against Eastern Michigan and was the MAC West Player of the Week.
Hammock said he preaches a next-guy-up mentality, and the team has responded.
“It’s been fantastic as a coach. I’m really enjoying myself,” Hammock said. “I think everybody thought we’d [stink] when we came into the season. Right? That’s the reality. I thought we were a better team than people gave us credit for. And our players believe in themselves.”
Tight end Tristen Tewes said seeing players step up when their role is increased boosts everyone’s confidence.
“People are buying into each other more, becoming more of a group and a family here,” Tewes said. “We kind of just play off each other. One guy gets down, everybody brings it back up. That’s the kind of things we’ve been building here.”
The Huskies are likely to see a two-headed attack at quarterback
Toledo has flipped between Carter Bradley and Dequan Finn situationally this year, with Bradley completing 61.1% of his passes for 912 yards, four touchdowns and an interception. Finn is second on the team with 255 rushing yards and is 19 of 29 passing for 192 yards and a score.
Hammock said that even though Preston Hutchinson didn’t play last week for the Eagles, NIU still practiced expecting to see two quarterbacks. So it’s something they’re used to by now.
“This is two weeks in a row we’ve had to prepare for two quarterbacks,” Hammock said. “Our guys have an understanding of what each quarterback brings to the table, and we have to be all hands on deck when the ball is snapped to try and keep them contained as much as possible.”
Defensive back C.J. Brown said the team is ready for either, or both.
“Going in there we know they have two good quarterbacks,” Brown said. “We’ve got to stop them. They’re two different styles but coach has put together a good gameplan in place for us to start them.
If Waylee doesn’t play, how will Antario Brown fare in a full game?
Although Waylee – who has rushed for 574 yards and four touchdown – is listed as the starter on the depth chart, Tucker and Rayner were both listed on the depth chart as starters heading into the Eastern game and neither played.
So if Waylee ends up not playing, the load will fall to Antario Brown – and even that depends on the status of Collins and Ducker. But Brown ran for 101 yards on 16 carries to help ice the win against the Eagles.
“I’ve seen how good Antario has been in practice,” right guard Logan Zschernitz said. “I knew once we put him in, he’d shine like he did.”
Pulse of the fans
The Rockets are averaging 30 points and 391 yards a game. It will be another chance for the defense to show it’s pointing in the right direction. Thomas has established himself as a force at linebacker, his third position in a year. A big reason for the defensive success was the five sacks the team notched against the Eagles. And Toledo has been susceptible to the sack, allowing 19 of them this year. Another five-sack game would mean very good things for the NIU defense
Toledo 38, NIU 31