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Football: Meet Ohio’s homecoming opponent, the Northern Illinois Huskies

Ohio opened its Mid-American Conference schedule last Saturday with a 21-20 overtime road win against MAC East rival Buffalo.

A game that featured many oddities – none more important than Buffalo’s missed extra point in overtime – the Bobcats (2-3, 1-0 MAC) found a way to win their first game in over a month.

The Bulls were runners up in the MAC Championship last season, and Ohio beat them. Now, it’s tasked with defeating Northern Illinois, the defending conference champions on homecoming when the Huskies make the 485-mile trip to Athens for the 23rd all-time meeting between the two programs.

A closer look at the Huskies.

All-time series: NIU leads 12-10. The first meeting between the two programs was in 1968 when the Bobcats won 28-12 in Athens. Last season, the Huskies won 24-21 in Ohio in DeKalb, Illinois. The Bobcats held a 21-9 lead heading into the fourth quarter, but NIU scored 15 unanswered points and escaped with a win.

The NIU report: The Huskies (1-4, 0-1 MAC) are led by first-year coach Thomas Hammock, who played running back at NIU from 1999-2002. His career was cut short because of a heart condition, but Hammock finished with 13th most all-time rushing yards with 2,432 in 32 games. Hammock has worked under some of the best minds at both the collegiate and professional level including former Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez and current Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh.

It’s been a tough go from the sidelines, however, in Hammock’s first year. After it defeated FCS Illinois State 24-10, NIU three consecutive games on the road against Power 5 schools and lost by an average of 20 points to Utah, Nebraska and Vanderbilt.

The Huskies began conference play on Oct. 5 when they dropped their MAC West division opener against Ball State in a 27-20 final.

Their offense fell flat in the second half, however, with four three-and-outs and three turnovers that led to Cardinals points.

Quarterback Ross Bowers, a graduate transfer who previously played at Cal, has gone 103-for-181 with 1,297 passing yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Bowers won the job from Marcus Childers, who started last year.

The Huskies also have a potent rushing attack, and while the Bobcats have appeared to fix their problem on stopping inside zones, the stretch plays to the outside gave them fits against Buffalo.

Led by redshirt junior running back Tre Harbison, NIU’s rushing offense doesn’t have the most impressive numbers, but it’s effective when it needs to be.

Through five games, Harbison is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and 74 yards per game. He also has two touchdowns.

Defensively, the Huskies rank among the top five in the conference with 362.4  average yards allowed per game, and their pass defense leads the MAC with 182.2 average yards allowed per game. The Huskies have two interceptions this season and have only allowed five touchdowns.

Where Saturday’s game will have the most intrigue is when Ohio runs the ball. It ran against one of the best rush defenses last week at Buffalo, and redshirt freshman O’Shaan Allison helped the Bobcats offense return to the identity coach Frank Solich and offensive coordinator Tim Albin have created over the last 15 years.

The Bobcats, who are fourth in the conference with 165 average rushing yards per game, will have to figure out how they match up with NIU’s fifth-ranked rush defense, which has allowed 180 yards per game.

How Ohio wins: They left Buffalo with a win, but the Bobcats had every statistic that favors the opposite outcome. Buffalo outgained Ohio 378-341 in total offensive yards, had less turnovers (2-1) and more sacks (4-0). 

And yet, the Bobcats got their first MAC win because of a botched extra point.

That’s not to say Ohio played poorly against the Bulls. The Bobcats worked on the things it needed to during the bye week and benefited from a weekend of rest. They can win their homecoming game by building off the performance it had on Saturday, and they should receive an offensive boost with the likely return of running back Julian Ross from an injury sustained Week 2 at Pitt.

Stat to know: 36. The last time Ohio played NIU on homecoming weekend was on Oct. 30, 1982, when the Huskies blanked the Bobcats in a dominant 36-0 final.

Player to watch: Antonio Davis-Jones, redshirt senior linebacker, No. 4.

Davis-Jones returns as the leader of the Huskie defense for his final year of eligibility. A First-Team All-MAC selection a year ago, he’s continued his production and currently leads NIU with 38 total tackles and is tied for first in interceptions and sacks.


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