NIU Sports

Carifio: A lot’s changed in a year for NIU team 1 win away from qualifying for bowl game

DeKALB – After the NIU football team topped Bowling Green, 34-26, to become the only unbeaten team in the Mid-American Conference and move one win away from bowl eligibility, Thomas Hammock asked a simple question.

This is an NIU team that went winless last year. What changed?

It very much was not a rhetorical question. He had his answer locked and loaded.

“One thing I think people need to realize, we’re still a young football team learning and growing every single week,” Hammock said. “Ten months ago we were 0-6. This year we’re 5-2. What changed? We didn’t change schemes or people, we just continued to go to work, we continued to grind, we continued to work extremely hard. Our practices are like a game each and every day on both sides of a ball. That’s why when we find ourselves in these types of games there’s no panic, there’s no stress, there’s no flinch. We have confidence we’re going to make plays.”

As the wins keep piling up for the Huskies (5-2, 3-0), it’s easy to forget how young this team is. This is a team with 84 freshmen, with only seven seniors and 11 juniors, obviously, those freshmen are playing big roles. Pick any game this year, pick any key play and chances are it was a freshman that made it.

Just look at the running backs. Harrison Waylee started the season at running back after getting stronger as the season went on last year as a true freshman. He was nearing 600 yards this season and had three 100-yard games before being hurt. But then Antario Brown, a true freshman, took over and ran for 93 yards last week against Toledo.

Then against the Falcons, Brown got hurt and Jay Ducker, a freshman last year who was injured, took over. Ducker became the first Huskie to run for 200 yards since Jordan Lynch. And his backup was true freshman Mason Blakemore.

The first time the Huskies were able to push their lead to two scores Saturday was on a 100-yard kick return by Trayvon Rudolph. He was a freshman All-American last year [the NCAA gave a free year of eligibility to all athletes last year] and second-team in the MAC as a kick returner. He hadn’t taken one to the house, but he did Saturday, and tied the school record for longest scoring play. Tommylee Lewis had a 100-yard kick return in 2011, and Dave Petway returned an interception 100 yards in 1977.

It was the first kickoff return for a touchdown of any length for the Huskies since Argeros Turner ran one back in 2016.

“This one, we went to the left side, I saw my blockers washing them off to the sideline,” Rudolph said. “So when I went back to the inside it was a big hole. I saw Clint in front of me too, I was really just going of Clint. When he hit the kicker I just went off the left side of his booty and took it to the house. With my speed, personally, I feel like when I get to the open field no one can catch me. So I just took it to the house.”

So, of course, there are going to be mistakes. Games that are 34-16 are going to end up closer than maybe they should be. But it all builds. Last year the Huskies lost three one-score games. All those games pretty much hinged on one or two plays.

This year, the Huskies are 4-1 in one-score games. Every game except Maine (a 41-14 win) and Michigan (file not found) was a close one. And they’ve won most of them.

They’re a battle-tested team that has changed dramatically in the past 10 months. Who knows what the next five weeks will hold or how much change this team will go through in the next 10 months.