Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock breaks down upset of Georgia Tech

Northern Illinois players and coaching staff celebrate after Northern Illinois wide receiver Tyrice Richie (3) made the game-winning catch during the second half Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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Northern Illinois players and coaching staff celebrate after Northern Illinois wide receiver Tyrice Richie (3) made the game-winning catch during the second half Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

After two three-and-out drives to start the game, Northern Illinois coach Thomas Hammock redirected the offensive attack against Georgia Tech.

“After the first couple drives, I said, ‘Let’s get in ‘22’ and see who’s the tougher team,’ ” Hammock said Saturday night following the Huskies’ 22-21 upset win over the Yellow Jackets at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “We wanted to be physical and get after them and keep our defense off the field.”

ExploreGeoff Collins: ‘That one hurt’

The “22” he referred to is a personnel package with two tight ends, two running backs and one wide receiver. The Huskies’ standard grouping is “11” — one tight end, one running back, three receivers.

The switch was effective, providing the blunt force that propelled the Huskies to touchdowns on their next two drives and opening the door for the upset. Monday, Hammock shared more of his team’s strategies that led to the Huskies’ landmark win (and the Jackets’ devastating loss) with the AJC.

“Obviously, Georgia Tech was a team that liked to blitz, and so anytime you blitz, they can always have one more guy than you can block,” Hammock said. “So we decided to jump to some heavier formations and extend edges and give them different looks and gap responsibilities.”

Credit: ACC

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Georgia Tech allowed a last-minute scoring drive by Northern Illinois to record their third-straight season opening loss.

Credit: ACC

After the game, coach Geoff Collins said that Northern Illinois used a “unique package” on its first two touchdown drives. The 22 package would be it, instrumental in the Huskies’ 22-point production. Hammock said that the offense used it more against Tech on Saturday than it had in all of its six games last season combined.

Even more, the Huskies employed some subterfuge in springing it. The offense huddled tight before the first play of the first scoring drive, making it more difficult to identify the personnel grouping, and then hurried to the line for a quick snap, springing running back Harrison Waylee for a nine-yard gain. Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker responded by removing a defensive back from his base 4-2-5 defense (four down linemen, two linebackers, five defensive backs) and adding a linebacker to counter Northern Illinois’ beefy lineup.

Later in the drive, Northern Illinois went back to its standard “11” grouping and Thacker returned to the 4-2-5. The Huskies were in that package when Tech called timeout before a first-and-10 at its 35-yard line.

But coming out of the timeout, Northern Illinois returned to its 22 grouping while Tech stayed in its base 4-2-5. The Huskies again quickly lined up and snapped the ball with quarterback Rocky Lombardi handing the ball off to Waylee, who ran behind both tight ends and fullback Brett Bostad on the right side of the line. They and a pulling guard cleared the path for Waylee’s 35-yard touchdown run that gave the Huskies a 7-0 lead.

Northern Illinois returned to the 22 grouping again several times for the next drive, a run-dominant series that also often went up-tempo and concluded with a five-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead.

“After the first two drives when I saw their plan of attack, being in 11 formation wasn’t going to help us,” Hammock said. “We had to do something to change it up. The third drive, we jumped in 22 and that created some problems, so we kind of stayed with it.”

For the rest of the game, the Huskies continued to use 22 but also returned to 11, but didn’t have the same sort of success as it did on the first two touchdown drives. Northern Illinois averaged 7.0 yards-per-play on those two touchdown drives and 4.2 the rest of the game.

As Collins put it, Northern Illinois had “a lot of unique motions, a lot of unique shifts, a lot of unique plays that we hadn’t really seen before. But once we had time to get to the sideline, make those adjustments, we had those things covered.”

Defensively, the Huskies were intent on limiting running back Jahmyr Gibbs and limiting big plays in general. Hammock cited Gibbs’ performance against Duke, when he gained 139 all-purpose yards on 10 touches in less than a half of play, including touchdown runs of 61 and 26 yards and a reception of 42 yards.

Northern Illinois 22, Georgia Tech 21

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Against a team with smaller and less-recruited players, Tech averaged 5.5 yards per play. The Jackets had higher averages against four ACC opponents last season.

“The biggest thing for us was to be able to gang takcle and try to eliminate explosive touchdowns,” Hammock said. “They have a lot of explosive players. The running backs are all explosive, the receivers are explosive. We knew the quarterback was an explosive player, and then the backup quarterback that came in, he caused us problems and fits for us. We didn’t want to give up the big plays.”

The Huskies did give up some big plays, notably a 53-yard pass from quarterback Jordan Yates to Malachi Carter on the first play of the Jackets’ game-tying touchdown drive in the fourth quarter. Quarterback Jeff Sims had a 28-yard run before he left the game in the second quarter with an apparent left arm injury. But Gibbs’ longest run was 19 yards and his longest reception was nine. The longest pass play after Carter’s 53-yarder was Kyric McGowan’s 22-yard touchdown catch.

And, as generally needs to happen for an upset of this magnitude, Tech cooperated by failing to make plays. Among the missed opportunities were an overthrown pass to by Sims to an open Nate McCollum in the end zone, another missed connection from Sims to Gibbs that could have been a touchdown, the failed fourth-and-goal pass from Yates to McGowan, two missed field-goal tries by Brent Cimaglia and only one turnover and one tackle for loss (both created by defensive back Wesley Walker). It all served to render the surprise switch to the 22 package difference-making.

The Huskies’ goal was to get into the fourth quarter with the game still in the balance.

“And we said, in the fourth quarter, we’re going to need somebody to make a play to give us an opportunity,” he said. “I know the point spread was very high, but I didn’t think it was that big of a difference. I thought it was going to be a very tightly contested ballgame. I thought it was going to be within one score and somebody needed to make a play to go win it.”

Hammock said he was confident in his team, despite the 18-point spread and the 0-6 record last season, because he trusted in the team’s development since then.

“So I thought, going into a first game with no tape or no film on how our players have gotten better, I thought we had a chance,” he said.

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Northern Illinois' defense blocks Georgia Techs' last-second field goal attempt to secure 22-21 win Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Northern Illinois' defense blocks Georgia Techs' last-second field goal attempt to secure 22-21 win Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Northern Illinois' defense blocks Georgia Techs' last-second field goal attempt to secure 22-21 win Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, at Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Down 21-14 with 2:42 left in the game, Northern Illinois got it on an 80-yard touchdown drive. The Huskies benefited from miscommunication in Tech’s secondary multiple times in the drive.

“The first play of the drive (a 39-yard pass from Lombardi to Tyrice Richie) was a play we ran earlier in the game, but we didn’t motion a guy (the first time), so we came back to it because we saw that there was a hole in their coverage, and we were able to get the drive started,” Hammock said. “But the rest of the drive was kind of normal-type plays for us.”

After the game, Hammock said that the decision to go for two in a late-game situation (down 21-20 with 38 seconds left) had been made Friday night in a game management meeting. He said the play call, a sprint-out to the right by Lombardi, who found Richie in the back of the end zone, was a counter to a two-point play that the Huskies had previously run.

“I said, ‘They will be prepared for a two-point play that we ran before,’ so we had a complement off the play and we went with that play and were able to find Tyrice in the back of the end zone,” Hammock said.

Back at Northern Illinois, ticket sales were churning for Saturday’s home opener against Wyoming. Social-media was buzzing. The NIU athletics Twitter account registered 5.6 times the number of impressions Saturday through early Monday than it had the previous three days. The MAC West Division players of the week were all Huskies.

“Obviously, it’s a long season, but I think it’s been positive,” Hammock said. “There’s a lot of good energy and vibes, but we’ve got to continue to move forward as a team and try to eliminate as much distraction and noise as we possibly can.”

Presumably, Hammock won’t be able to catch Wyoming by surprise with his 22 grouping.