LARAMIE -- Northern Illinois didn't win a single game in 2020.

How bad was it?

The Huskies' defense gave up nearly 40 points per game in those six losses. When your offense is averaging just under 25 points an outing, that's going to equate to some long Saturday afternoons.

That's all a distant memory now after Thomas Hammock's team went on the road to ACC country in Week 1 and pulled off the 22-21 upset over Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

"You know, they are a real physical football team," Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl said. "That changed from the previous year to this year. Boy, they come off the ball and smack you around. I think their defensive line is much more aggressive and they have guys in the secondary that can run."

NIU is also getting an early return from Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi, who threw for a modest 136 yards last Saturday but did torch the Yellow Jackets for a pair of touchdown throws.

Running back Harrison Waylee rushed for a game-high 144 yards on 27 carries and scored a touchdown in the upset. Seven different receivers hauled in a pass from Lombardi in Atlanta, too.

That much-maligned defense from a season ago, registered four sacks and six tackles for loss. Linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. racked up a team-best 12 tackles, including one for loss.

"It's a remarkable change from last year to this year," Bohl added. "You know, they were winless last year. Coach Hammock has done a great job changing the mantra of that football team."

Wyoming, of course, scraped by a scrappy Montana State squad 19-16 in its season opener last Saturday in Laramie. It took an eight-play, 75-yard drive and a 21-yard touchdown toss from Sean Chambers to Treyton Welch to thwart the Bobcats' upset attempt.

Who picks up their first loss of the season this week in DeKalb? Here's what the Cowboys needs to do to make sure it isn't them:

 

1. Stop No. 30

Only one running back over the previous 20 games has rushed for 100 yards against the Cowboys. That guy was Bobby Cole. New Mexico's shifty back finished with 133 in an upset win over Wyoming last December in Las Vegas.

Well, it happened again Saturday.

Montana State's Isaiah Ifanse, aided by back-to-back rushes of 21 yards on the Bobcats' fourth-quarter scoring drive, amassed 103 against Wyoming last Saturday in Laramie.

That can't happen again.

Waylee not only led the Huskies with a career-best 144 rushing yards last Saturday night in Atlanta, the freshman helped control the clock and keep the Yellow Jackets' offense on the sideline. The 35-yard touchdown jaunt in the first quarter was pretty, too. He did, however, have a costly fourth-quarter fumble that gave Georgia Tech the ball and eventually a late lead.

On NIU's final game-winning drive, though, Waylee snagged a pass from Lombardi on a 3rd and 10, taking the ball 16 yards down the field to the Tech 25-yard line with just 2:20 left in the fourth. He followed that up with back-to-back rushes that resulted in 13 yards.

Three plays later Lombardi hit Clint Ratkovich in the end zone for the go-ahead score with only 44 seconds remaining.

"I think they have a good running back," UW linebacker Chad Muma said. "They kind of showed some things this past game against Georgia Tech -- just those explosive plays. So, I think the biggest thing for our defense is just getting aligned."

After a slow start to the 2020 season, Waylee eclipsed the 100-yard mark in the Huskies' final two games. That streak now sits at three. He was named the MAC Player of the Week for his performance in Georgia.

"Harrison is twice the player he was last year," Hammock told NIUHuskies.com after the win over Tech. "He put the work in. We went into this game determined to make it a four-quarter game."

 

MORE UW FOOTBALL NEWS:
* Braden Smith's perseverance paying off in a big way 
* For Ravontae Holt, playing Saturday was 'surreal' experience
* Tim Polasek saw plenty of correctable mistakes in opener
* Pokes' news & notes: Week 2

 

 

2. Get No. 6 going

Bohl was not thrilled with the Cowboys' rushing attack Saturday.

That's no surprise.

Wyoming, led by an offensive line with more than 145 combined starts under its belt coming in, finished with just 151 yards on the ground on 43 carries. That's an average of just 3.5 yards per rush and 70 yards off last season's average.

Xazavian Valladay, an Illinois native and the Mountain West's leading rusher over the previous two seasons, was held to just 77 yards on 19 carries.

That's not how this team is going to win football games.

"The biggest area where I was disappointed in is our traditional tailback run game," Bohl said. "That was not where it needed to be. I think we've got a stable of some excellent running backs, so we've got to clean some things up there, particularly with the offensive line and some perimeter blocking, whether it be our tight ends or some wide receivers."

First-year offensive coordinator, Tim Polasek, said the mistakes from the front five are fixable. In fact, if they don't miss an assignment or two, he thinks the Cowboys' backs could've popped a big run or two against MSU.

Wyoming's center Keegan Cryder called the line's performance last Saturday "frustrating."

"After looking at the film, we saw our mistakes," he said. "I look forward to correcting those this week and getting back on the horse."

This could be the week to get that done, too.

As impressive as Northern Illinois was in Week 1, the Huskies did give up 273 yards on the ground and more than five yards per carry. Georgia Tech deployed six different ball carriers in the loss. Four rushed for five yards per carry or better.

 

3. Second down matters

Wyoming was just 3-for-12 on third-down attempts through three quarters of last Saturday's escape job win over Montana State.

Yeah, Polasek, wasn't happy with that stat. Or the final one -- 6 for 17.

He said third down wasn't the only troublesome one though. It was the previous play on each of those failed drives that made the biggest difference.

The Cowboys took eight second-down snaps against the Bobcats during the first half. They gained a whopping 13 total yards and suffered losses on three of those plays. The first-half drive chart looked like this -- interception, punt, punt, punt, downs, field goal.

Yikes.

"To be honest, I was really disappointed in our second-down production," Polasek said. "Staying ahead of the chains gives us an opportunity on third down ... I don't want to face a bunch of third-and-plus in a game. We need to limit that."

Polasek said faltering on second down just gives the power right over the opposing defense.

"It flips," he said. "Their defensive coordinator has ability to force ball out of our hand fast or play zone -- he's got more options. I was disappointed in the efficiency."

Bottom line: The Cowboys need to string long drives together. If they can get point No. 2 going, this one should take care of itself.

Just The Facts: Size Doesn't Matter For Wyoming's War Memorial Stadium

Did you know it would take the populations of Gillette (32,857), Laramie (32,381), Rock Springs (23,319), Sheridan (17,844) and Wright (1,200) to create a sellout inside Michigan's famed 107,601-seat Big House, the largest college football stadium in the nation?

For those of you not familiar with the Cowboy State, those are Wyoming's third through sixth most inhabited cities, along with the small mining town in Campbell County.

- Just The Facts: Size Doesn't Matter For Wyoming's War Memorial Stadium