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‘This is your validation’: Led by one of its own, Northern Illinois has found its way back

Coach Thomas Hammock’s Huskies — one of the most surprising success stories in college football — keep outlasting one opponent after another.

Thomas Hammock has it going with the Huskies.
Thomas Hammock has it going with the Huskies.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Two minutes and 57 seconds. Otherwise known as an eternity.

That’s how long it took for officials to uphold Northern Illinois’ go-ahead two-point conversion in the final minute of a season-opening 22-21 upset victory at Georgia Tech.

‘‘It felt so long because you weren’t sure, right?’’ Huskies coach Thomas Hammock said two happy months later. ‘‘You’re on the road, playing a Power Five opponent. There were so many variables, you didn’t know which way it would go.’’

After Rocky Lombardi’s touchdown pass to roommate Clint Ratkovich, Hammock kept his offense on the field. For a coach coming off a winless 2020 season, it was a bold move. A run stopped short, a pass batted down — either would be crushing.

But Lombardi rolled right and, a split-second before being blasted by a blitzing linebacker, found a friend in the back of the end zone. Tyrice Richie twisted his body to snag a ball thrown slightly behind him, his left hand hit the turf while cradling the ball — which bounced a bit — and then, well, you know how it goes. Confusion. Tension. A desperate waiting game. Let’s round up and call it three minutes of purgatory.

NIU blocked a 60-yard field-goal try on the final play to seal the first college victory many on the team had experienced. The Huskies were the second-youngest team in the country last season — starting 11 true freshmen — when they went 0-6 amid the preparation challenges and pervasive strangeness of pandemic football.

‘‘Thanks for believing,’’ Hammock told his players in the locker room. ‘‘This is your validation.’’

From the start, Hammock has told this team how hard it would be to win. You don’t go from 0-6 to blowing people out. Instead, the Huskies — one of the most surprising success stories in the country — have outlasted one opponent after another. They upset Toledo 22-20 with five field goals from John Richardson, the last one coming with 26 seconds to go. They upset Central Michigan 39-38 with a comeback from 18 points down and another last-minute field goal, this one by backup kicker Kanon Woodill. Both those victories came on the road, too.

The Huskies are bowl-eligible at 6-2 and the only Mid-American Conference team with an unbeaten record in league play. Hammock, in his third season at his alma mater, is building something in a way predecessors Rod Carey and Dave Doeren didn’t have to.

‘‘I’m not going to say I didn’t think this was possible,’’ Hammock said. ‘‘I thought if we were able to [compete] early, the players would handle the moment the right way, given what they’ve been through.’’

And speaking of strangeness, November — the MAC’s silly season — has arrived. That means games on days of the week the football gods never intended. For NIU, it means three consecutive Wednesday games, starting this week at Kent State, followed by a regular-season finale on a Tuesday. All four contests will be on ESPN2 or ESPNU, giving college fans — even those of down-and-out Illinois and Northwestern — a chance to watch a pretty good in-state team get after it.

Nineteen years ago, one game into his own senior season, Hammock — a two-time 1,000-yard running back who scored 25 touchdowns at NIU — had to stop playing after being diagnosed with a heart condition. He spent the next few months soaking up what he could from his coaches while an idea of what he might do with his life started kicking around in his head.

He began as a graduate assistant at Wisconsin, to where he eventually returned as running backs coach and led one of the greatest groups — Montee Ball, James White, Melvin Gordon — the college game has seen. After that came five years in the NFL as running backs coach of the Ravens, who ranked second in the league in rushing in 2018, Hammock’s last season.

All that was great, but steering his own ship back in DeKalb has been better. When he interviewed for the job, he told the administration that Year 3 was when it really would learn what a Hammock-led program was all about.

‘‘It took some time,’’ he said, ‘‘but now you can see it.’’

It was worth the wait.

Just sayin’

State football rankings, current edition: 1. NIU; 2. Southern Illinois; 3. Illinois;
4. Northwestern; 5. Bears.

Get a load of SIU, 6-2 and ranked No. 7 in the Football Championship Subdivision.

‘‘Shame on you,’’ an emailer wrote because I haven’t shown any love to the Salukis.

What was it George W. Bush said? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me . . . you can’t get fooled again.

• On second thought, are the Bears too high at No. 5? Loyola Academy up in Wilmette is looking mighty tough.

• So, Scottie Pippen has a memoir — titled ‘‘Unguarded’’ — coming out in which he rips Michael Jordan, the Bulls and ‘‘The Last Dance’’ documentary series?

If that’s his diabolical plan to get me to watch all 10 episodes again, it’ll probably work.

Also, wouldn’t ‘‘Unguarded’’ have been a better name for a Dickey Simpkins memoir?

Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament - Ohio State v Illinois
Liddell shoots over Cockburn last season.
Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

• Congratulations to Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, who was voted an Associated Press preseason All-American, along with Gonzaga’s Drew Timme, UCLA’s Johnny Juzang, Villanova’s Collin Gillespie and Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis. Cockburn also was named the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year in a media vote.

This is where I — an AP voter — admit that my first-team votes went to Timme, Juzang, Gillespie, Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim and Ohio State’s E.J. Liddell.

Cockburn is terrific, but Liddell — a two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball and two-time state champion at downstate Belleville West — is the Big Ten’s best all-around player. His inside-outside scoring ability and defensive versatility will have him in the Wooden Award hunt until the very end.