Western Michigan at NIU: Three things to watch as the Huskies look to stay alive for a bowl bid

Northern Illinois' Rocky Lombardi escapes the Ball State pressure and runs for a touchdown during their game Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2023, in Huskie Stadium at NIU in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University and Western Michigan square off Tuesday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, and one team will be eliminated from bowl contention.

The two teams enter the game trending in opposite directions with the Broncos (4-6 overall, 3-3 MAC) having won two straight after losing six of seven games. The Huskies (4-6, 3-3) have lost two straight games.

The Huskies have played three straight one-score games, losing the last two. They are 2-5 in one-score games this season. Western Michigan is 0-2.

Here are three things to know about the game.

Getting better play from the quarterback position

The Huskies have turned the ball over 15 times this season, and coach Thomas Hammock said all but one of those have come from the quarterback spot.

On Tuesday, in a 20-17 loss to Ball State, Rocky Lombardi fumbled three times. The Huskies went from up seven points driving with the ball with just more than 8 minutes left to losing on a field goal as time expired.

“We really need our quarterback to play consistent football,” Hammock said. “It’s as simple as that. We’re playing good on defense. We’re playing solid on offense. We’re playing good on special teams. We need Rocky to play consistent football. ... Not that we’re blaming him for losses, but we just have to play sound football at every position. But that position carries the most weight for any team, and it’s important for him to understand that.”

Lombardi has completed 58.2% of his passes this year for 1,799 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions.

How important is a bowl game is to the Huskies?

NIU needs wins in its final two games to become bowl eligible at 6-6.

“We’re attacking everything,” defensive tackle Demond Taylor said. “We attack every week the same, but just knowing this is like a championship game, we want to come out and win this. I believe everyone is going to be locked in and ready to go.”

Western Michigan is in the same boat. Having won its past two games against Eastern Michigan (45-21) and Central Michigan (38-28), the Broncos need wins against NIU and Bowling Green to become bowl eligible.

Because of losses the past two weeks to Central Michigan (37-31) and Ball State (20-17), the Huskies need wins against the Broncos and Kent State.

“I think it’s very important any time you have the opportunity to play in a bowl game and send your seniors out the right way, that’s what you want to do,” Hammock said.

Stopping Western Michigan on fourth down

No team has attempted more fourth-down conversions than Western Michigan. They are 16 for 34 on fourth down this season.

Hammock said it’s important to realize that there’s going to be far more “waste downs” against a team that goes for it on fourth down an average of three times per game.

“Second-and-4 could be a waste down, right? Third-and-1 is definitely a waste down,” Hammock said. “When you understand that you just have to make sure you’re solid and sound and don’t give up explosive plays in situations where you think they’re going to do one thing or the other.”

Prediction: Western Michigan 24, NIU 21

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