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Carter: NIU shows commitment to aerial attack, but fades in loss

Utah defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) tackles Northern Illinois wide receiver Cole Tucker (18) in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2019, Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Utah defensive back Julian Blackmon (23) tackles Northern Illinois wide receiver Cole Tucker (18) in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 9, 2019, Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

NIU was fully commited to the aerial attack in Saturday’s 35-17 loss at Utah. That was enough for the first half, but not for the latter one.

Ross Bowers finished the day 20-of-29 passing for 229 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Several times, the Huskies went to the air on second-and-1 and second-and-2 types of situations, showing a desire to be unpredictable, as well as not letting stud Utah defensive tackle John Penisini get his hands on the backs in short yardage spots.

Per NIU coach Thomas Hammock, the Huskies were taking what the defense was giving them.

“We had some different types of run/pass options for the quarterback, and they were giving us looks to throw the ball that were advantageous,” Hammock said. “The quarterback and receivers did a great job taking advantage of what the defense was giving us.”

After 25 offensive plays, the Huskies already had 186 yards of offense and Bowers had completed long passes to Daniel Crawford and Spencer Tears. But Tre Harbison had only one rush in the first half. So did Marcus Jones. Jordan Nettles had more than both (10 carries), presumably on purpose, as he ripped off an early 13-yard run off tackle to the right side of the field.

The early use of Nettles as the primary back to have speed out of the backfield and to get away from Utah’s talented defensive tackles added to obvious nature of the Huskies’ commitment to the air.

When NIU fell behind, 14-7, in the second quarter, the Huskies dialed up a play that sent Crawford down the left hash and Spencer Tears on a route similar to a post corner.

Crawford’s presence froze the safety momentarily and allowed Tears to catch the ball unimpeded. After breaking the safety’s tackle, he ran 79 yards to paydirt.

After that Tears touchdown reception, the Huskies posted 116 yards on 31 plays the rest of the game. Tears finished with 112 yards and a touchdown by way of five receptions.

“I felt like last week I left a couple of plays out there,” Tears said. “It was a good win, for sure, for the team (Utah), but personally I felt like individually I could have done better. ... I felt like I had something to prove this week.”

The ability to put one defensive player on an island is something that will bode especially well for the Huskies in Mid-American Conference play, where safeties in the conference will not cover the type of ground that the Utes’ defensive backs do.

But with Utah having made second-half adjustments, Bowers forced an out-of-pocket throw to a blanketed receiver in the third quarter that was intercepted by Julian Blackmon.

A problem the Huskies have faced in both games thus far has has been converting on third downs. The Huskies were 2 of 12 on third downs in the Utah loss and 3 of 15 in the Illinois State game.

The pressure provided by Utes defensive end Bradlee Anae (three sacks) in the second half contributed the Huskies compiling only 69 yards of offense.

“We came out with a more pissed-off attitude,” Anae said about the second half defensively.
With it being evident after two games that the Huskies are devoted to a heavy passing attack, Hammock said he wants to see cleaner line play.

“We’re getting him hit way too much, and we’ve got to clean up the pass protection,” Hammock said. “We had some explosive plays in the first half, and those play a big role in determining the outcome of the game.”

• Kaleb Carter is a sports writer for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at or follow him on Twitter @Kaleb_M_Carter.

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