DeKALB – A few weeks ago, Jay Ducker found himself on the scout team. On Saturday, he became the first NIU football player to run for 200 yards in a game in about a decade.
Coming into the game after Antario Brown was injured in the first half, Ducker ran 33 times for 218 yards, helping the Huskies build an 18-point lead en route to a 34-26 win against Bowling Green.
The Huskies (5-2, 3-0) not only remained unbeaten in the Mid-American Conference, but with Kent State’s loss they became the only MAC team to not lose a conference game this season.
After Brown went down in the first quarter – he landed awkwardly and fumbled the ball, leading to a touchdown for the Falcons (2-5, 0-3) that staked them to a 7-0 lead – Ducker came in and ran all over the Falcons.
“We knew we were going to run heavy,” Ducker said. “The linemen, we all came out and did our Xs and Os. We always say practice like you want to play in the game, and we did that this week. Last week you saw that, too.”
Ducker didn’t play against Eastern Michigan but had appeared in the three games before that. Coach Thomas Hammock said he talked with Ducker about the way he was playing, and Ducker responded to the adversity and played himself back onto the main team – he backed up Brown last week.
“He handled himself the right way,” Hammock said. “We had a heart-to-heart, I told him how I felt about how he was practicing and playing, and he went to work to correct it. What you saw was he was sent to the scout team, worked extremely hard on the scout team and got himself prepared to play.”
Ducker, a freshman who was on the roster last year but missed the season because of injury, said he had to re-examine a lot of things after the demotion – he had carried the ball in every game except the opener against Georgia Tech.
“My mindset was what can I do to get back on the field?” Ducker said. “So I went back to scratch, started with Xs and Os and broke it down to what I can do to show I can play at this level and do all that.”
Hammock said the goal was to run the ball given how windy it was, and the Huskies did just that, rushing 59 times for 340 yards.
Brown was the second NIU starting RB to go down this year. Harrison Waylee missed his second straight game because of injury.
Ducker had 11 carries for 50 yards last week in a win at Toledo and said that helped prepare him for his expanded role when it came.
“We kind of always rotated backs so it wasn’t anything new,” Ducker said. “When you’re behind someone you want to make every opportunity your best. When you see somebody, like what happened to AB, you kind of just watch for that.”
Ducker was the first Huskie to reach the 200-yard mark since Jordan Lynch ran for 321 yards against Western Michigan on Nov. 26, 2013. He was the first running back to hit the milestone since Cameron Stingly ran for 266 against Kent State on Oct. 5, 2013.
“His talent is unquestioned. His vision is unquestioned. His ability to run the football is unquestioned,” Hammock said. “His mentality of how he attacked and approached the last few weeks showed up today.”
Mason Blakemore also saw his first action for the Huskies. The true freshman ran four times for 44 yards, including a 17-yard run that gave the Huskies the lead for good in the second quarter, putting them up 14-7. The lead grew to as much as 34-16 after Trayvon Rudolph caught a touchdown pass from Rocky Lombardi – one of only eight passes he attempted – and then John Richardson made a field goal.
Even with the injuries, Hammock said the team is in good shape at the position and expects the competition to continue next week heading into the Central Michigan game Saturday.
“Next week you’ve got three guys who want to play,” Hammock said. “What a great position to be in as a coach. They will be motivated to practice. I can promise you that. They understand whoever practices the best is going to get the opportunities.”