DEKALB, Ill. - At the beginning of the season, Northern Illinois was hyping senior tailback Thomas Hammock as an All-American candidate.
The two-time, first-team All-Mid-American Conference pick was coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and was one of 30 players in the running for the Doak Walker Award, emblematic of college football's top running back.
Hammock was named the MAC's West Division offensive player of the week after rushing 28 times for 172 yards and two touchdowns in the Huskies' season-opening overtime win over Wake Forest.
But in early September, after experiencing some difficulty with breathing, Hammock underwent a series of tests. When doctors detected a heart ailment, his season ended abruptly.
Backup junior Michael Turner replaced Hammock in the second game - and hit the ground running.
The 6-0, 223-pound Turner enters today's game against the University of Toledo at Huskie Stadium as the leading rusher and scorer in the MAC.
His 1,702 yards rank him third among Division I-A running backs and are the fourth-highest single-season total in conference history.
He is 204 yards shy of breaking the league mark of 1,905 yards, set by the Rockets' Wasean Tait in 1995.
Turner's 19 touchdowns are tied for the most in school history, and he has just been named one of eight semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award.
“We knew he was a good talent,” NIU coach Joe Novak said. “He had almost a 1,000 yards as a backup as a true freshman, and he had 500 yards in two games at the end of the year when Hammock got hurt.
“Last year he had some injuries. He had some pulled hamstrings and some other things that limited his playing time. And Hammock certainly had a great year.
“Going into this year, again Hammock was our guy. But when he went down after our opener, Michael got his opportunity.”
Turner's running has the red-hot Huskies (8-3, 7-0) on the verge of winning their first West Division title, provided they can beat the defending MAC champion Rockets (7-3, 5-1).
Toledo, on the other hand, must win its final two games to earn a share of the West crown and a return trip to the MAC championship game.
“Northern Illinois is doing a whole lot right, and so is Turner,” UT defensive end Phil Alexander said.
Turner rushed for 225 yards and five touchdowns last Saturday in NIU's seventh straight win, a 49-21 victory over Eastern Michigan. The week before that he managed 192 yards on 40 carries in the Huskies' 26-17 triumph over then-No. 20 Bowling Green.
“If you don't have a good line, you're not going anywhere,” Turner said. “I give all the credit to the line.”
He leads all Division I-A rushers with four 200-yard games this season. Turner is averaging 154.7 yards per game on the ground.
“His stats say it all,” Toledo linebacker David Gardner said. “He has four games with over 200 yards and another three or four over 150, which is just amazing.
“He's doing a phenomenal job. It's going to be crucial for our defensive line to come in an establish the line of scrimmage.”
Hammock came into last year's game against Toledo with eight straight 100-yard rushing games, but the Rockets defense held him to 10 yards on 10 carries. Turner managed just 16 yards on eight rushes in a backup role.
Toledo ranks seventh in the MAC in run defense this year, allowing 157.8 yards per game. The Rockets allowed opposing players to gain 100 yards or more in three of the first four games, but have allowed none since.
They also have held the MAC's No. 2 and No. 3 rushers in check - Ball State's Marcus Merriweather managed a season-low 76 yards against the Rockets, and Central Michigan's Robbie Mixon was limited to 35 yards, a week after rushing for a MAC record 377.
“We've always struggled running the football against [Toledo]” Novak said. “They play the 4-4 and they play it as well as anybody. I know several teams in our league have actually copied what Toledo does defensively because they do it so darn well.”