They were the last words of his news conference, but they stuck out.
“If we can’t execute, we won’t continue to put ourselves in those situations.”
Fourth-year Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock said that in reference to his team’s inability to convert late in the game on fourth down in a 38-28 loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday.
In the Huskies’ run to a Mid-American Conference championship last year, their boldness was a calling card. Fourth-down calls, fourth-and-goal situations, Hammock and the staff trusted the team to convert, and the team didn’t disappoint.
But the Huskies were 1 of 3 on Saturday. Somehow, the most high-profile miss was at the same time insanely aggressive and unfortunately predictable.
The Huskies led 28-14, but that was knocked down to 28-21. The Huskies looked to answer.
Harrison Waylee rush for 5 yards on first down.
Harrison Waylee rush for 3 yards on second down.
Harrison Waylee rush for 1 on third down.
So it’s fourth-and-1 from the NIU 34. Most coaches would punt. Hammock went for it, and honestly it’s a good call. Trust the offense, even with a backup quarterback playing in Ethan Hampton after Rocky Lombardi got hurt. Hampton was hitting passes.
Harrison Waylee rush for a 3-yard loss on fourth down.
Four plays, four straight runs by Waylee. Six net yards.
The game already was shifting to Vandy’s favor. A couple of penalties had wiped away big plays. And Vandy tied the game on the next play, but the writing clearly was on the wall.
You also can make the case the predictability hurt the Huskies on first down as well. If you go through the play-by-play of the game and add up the Huskies’ first-down plays, they’re telling. They carried the ball 14 times for 44 yards, while they were 5-of-8 passing for 26 yards and a touchdown – and those three incompletions all were after Vandy tied the game. So was a 10-yard first-down run.
So, in essence, in situations when it was first down and not in a late-game, must-score situation, NIU didn’t miss a pass and had a touchdown. And the Huskies’ first 12 first-down runs in that window netted only 28 yards.
Not that NIU needs to only bomb the ball downfield. The short passing game is great. That’s what got the touchdown, a pretty pass from Lombardi to Cole Tucker. In fact, Tucker is great as a short-yardage possession guy. He proved that Saturday, turning a short pass from Hampton into a 70-yard touchdown.
When other teams know you’re going to zig, that’s when you’ve got to zag. And everybody knows NIU is going to run on first down. The Huskies have the weapons to make teams pay for that.
Full disclosure: I know last week, the Huskies threw the ball late in the game on fourth down against Tulsa, including on a fourth-and-3 with two minutes left instead of punting. But in that instance, the team decided to go to a freshman tight end instead of a veteran such as Tucker or Shemar Thornton. End of aside.
Hammock and the coaches shouldn’t be contemplating reducing how often they go for it on fourth down. It worked for the team before. Rethinking the play calls should help recapture that magic. After all, fullback Clint Ratkovich isn’t walking through that door, and he was a big key to that short-yardage success last year.
And if the team starts adding in some first-down variety, the Huskies may not even need to recapture that fourth-down magic.