Behind Enemy Lines: NIU football beat writer James Krause discusses CMU game


Redshirt freshman running back Lew Nichols scores a touchdown against Northern Illinois on Nov. 11 at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Illinois.

Central Michigan Life's Christian Booher spoke with Northern Illinois football beat writer of The Northern Star to preview CMU's game against the Huskies at Kelly/Shorts Stadium. Northern Illinois is 5-2 overall, holding a 3-0 record in Mid-American Conference play. 

It's the 54th all-time meeting between these two schools, with CMU holding a 30-22-1 advantage in the series. 

Krause discusses quarterback Rocky Lombardi, coach Thomas Hammock, players to watch and more in this exclusive Q&A. 

What has been the key to NIU starting off conference play unbeaten? 

I think, primarily, it's been Thomas Hammock, a former running back, naturally he's gonna want to run the ball. He's done it with a lot more efficiency than he has even in past years. He's got a lot of guys who can do it. Harrison Waylee went down with an injury, Antario Brown stepped up. Last week Browb went down with an injury and Jay Ducker stepped up. So the running game has been the first and foremost thing for them. 

I also think a big deal is they've been limiting the mistakes. Last season, a lot of their games could've been closer or even been victories had they limited things like turnovers. But they've been able to manage that well. They're the least sacked team in the MAC and I don't think that Rocky Lombardi has turned the ball over nearly as much as he did earlier in the season or even during his time at Michigan State. 

Speaking of Lombardi, what's the value of having a quarterback who has played in big games and at a higher level coming into another big game against CMU, and what has that done for the confidence of the team?

It's done a ton. When I talked to him earlier in the year one of the big things he mentioned was he wasn't trying to get particular playing time, he's not trying to be in a better situation than he was at Michigan State, he's just trying to be somewhere where he can be in an offense that fits him and a place where he can be a leader. And that leadership, I mean, this is a team that is very young. And they needed the leadership. They've talked about how they felt like they didn't really have it last year. 

Lombardi, along with a guy like (running back) Clint Ratkovich who transferred in from Western Illinois, they provide a lot of veteran leadership to this team. And they've been a big help in rallying guys to put them in a situation to win a lot of the games they have. 

Who are some other playmakers to be aware of? 

Offensively, I'd say Tyrice Richie is gonna be their go-to guy in the passing game. Trayvon Rudolph in the return game, he just had his first career return touchdown and last year he was a freshman All-American for his kick returning. So he's a guy, he says every run back he's trying to score a touchdown and sometimes it doesn't look like it and sometimes, like last week, it'll pop out of nowhere so we'll see if he tries to string some things together. 

Defensively, I'd say Lance Deveaux Jr. is their rock at linebacker and Jordan Gandy, I think, is one of the better defensive backs in the conference. A lot of pass breakups and he's sort of been their rock as well. 

What has the unbeaten start to conference play done for the fanbase and its perception of coach Thomas Hammock? 

I think it's gotten a lot of people more comfortable. I think, realistically, at the end of last season 0-6 obviously, the record doesn't show it, but a lot of people thought this was a team that could be back in a position where they contend for MAC championships. I don't think they expected it to be accelerated as much as it has. There's still half a schedule left, but a lot of people are saying this is a team that could go to Detroit and win the conference title because of just how wild the conference has been this year. 

It's definitely boosted the confidence in the program. I think they go into any game thinking they can win it now. And with this back half of their schedule, that's gonna be big because, I mean, to this point, I don't think many people expected them to be in the bowl-eligibility category. But now, they get a win at a Ball State or some of these other schools that have struggled early this year, they could do that and they could find themselves in a MAC championship spot. I think a lot of people are really starting to warm up to Thomas Hammock's attitude of, 'If we've got to win games ugly, we're gonna win games ugly.' It helps when you have a guy who's really coached up those running backs well and it's really exciting to see how deep that group can be in a couple years. 

Krause's score prediction

NIU 23-20