In their first game of 2020, the Northern Illinois Huskies (0-1) fell to the Buffalo Bulls (1-0) by the score of 49-30. But, despite the lopsided score, there were some positives to take away.
The Huskies certainly had some bright spots, although few and far between.
The defense played (mostly) well and hung tough against the best rushing team in the MAC. NIU actually out-gained the Bulls, 397-357 and had a commanding lead in time of possession (37:11 to 22:49). And Harrison Waylee looked good in his first career game.
A Tale of Two Halves
Buffalo started off strong, scoring on their first two drives, before the Huskie defense hunkered down and began to slow the Bulls. The Huskie defense was able to get an interception and gave the offense good field position on three straight drives, allowing NIU to score late in the half and head into halftime down just five, 21-16.
But any chance of an upset ended midway through the third quarter when the Huskies fumbled on back-to-back possession, with both fumbles being returned for scores, which upped the Bulls lead from 21-16 to 35-16 in just 45 seconds of game time.
Just two possessions later, NIU would fumble the ball for a third time in the quarter and, early in the fourth quarter, the Bulls would score another defensive touchdown when Ross Bowers was intercepted by Kadofi Wright who returned the pick 65 yards for a touchdown.
Here’s a look at the first five drives for the Huskies in the second half:
- Fumble returned for a touchdown
- Fumble returned for a touchdown
- Punt (3-and-out)
- Interception returned for a touchdown
For all the talk of how young and inexperienced this roster was, it was the upperclassmen that made the majority of mistakes.
Bowers threw a pick six and knocked the ball out of his own hands on a pump fake. Erin Collins, a junior running back, fumbled two plays later. Rondarius Gregory, the leading returning rusher for NIU, fumbled two possessions later. Rodney Thompson, a junior quarterback, also fumbled on the Huskies final drive.
It’s hard to win when you turn the ball over five times in a half.
NIU was also flagged seven times for 65 yards.
The Defense Did Better Than Expected
While the final has Buffalo with 49 points, the defense only gave up 28 of those 49 and actually looked a lot sharper than expected.
While NIU couldn’t get too much pressure on Buffalo’s quarterback Kyle Vantrease, only netting three tackles for loss and one quarterback hurry, they were able to contain the running game (for the most part).
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo’s explosive halfback, finished the day with 137 yards and two scores on 20 runs, including a 56-yard score. But...if you take away that one big run, Patterson was contained to just 81 yards on 19 carries, which is something the Huskie D can certainly build on.
The Huskies did miss quite a few tackles and had a lot of open spaces in the secondary that will need to tightened up moving forward. But, overall, the defense held their ground for most of the game, only really struggling on the Bulls first two drives. They held Buffalo to 3-9 on third downs, forced two turnovers, and gave up just 14 first downs (NIU had 26 first downs).
Special Teams Looked Good
Kicker John Richardson was perfect on the day, with a 43-yard field goal and an extra point.
Matt Ference punted the ball five times for 215 yards (a 43 yard average) with a long of 53.
But the player that stood out most was Trayvon Rudolph.
Rudolph, a freshman wide receiver who had two catches for 56 yards, also returned five kickoffs for the Huskies. In those five returns, he averaged over 30 yards per return, and had a long of 45. He gave the Huskies good starting field position every time he ran the ball out - something NIU struggled to do the last few seasons on kickoffs.
Here’s hoping he can become the next Tommylee Lewis and start tacking some of these kicks to the house.
The new faces for the Huskies showed some sparks of greatness and gave me some hope for the upcoming few years.
Rodney Thompson looked solid as a quarterback late in the game, despite his fumble. Waylee ran the ball well (13 carries for 66 yards). Rudolph hopefully grows into a great return-man/receiver. Nick Rattin, a sophomore linebacker, led the team with 10 tackles.
The biggest concern for the Huskies is cleaning up their game. They need the few upperclassmen they have to start playing smarter and cleaner football. They need to tackle better on defense and limit the big plays. And, most importantly, they need to hold on to the football.
If the Huskies can minimize turnovers and start wrapping up tackles, this team could make some noise in the MAC West.
But the future still looks bright for the Huskies as these young players should continue to grow and improve.