TOLEDO – One can’t help but notice that Northern Illinois – picked to finish last in the Mid-American Conference West Division before the season by a comfortable margin – has instead reached the halfway point of the 2021 football season on the polar opposite end of the standings.
After winning at Georgia Tech to start the season and gritting its way to a 2-0 start in the MAC, the Huskies (4-2) have been the surprise of the league this year.
A bruising 22-20 victory Saturday at Toledo might have been the type of defensive gridlock that only a grizzled coach could love, but the win showed the Huskies’ blueprint: Just win ugly, baby.
“We want it dirty,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “We want the ugly games. We do. We have confidence that we can make plays in the fourth quarter, and that’s what they showed today.”
Told after the game that his team held the ball for more than 40 minutes against the Rockets (3-3, 1-1 MAC), Hammock called the time of possession stats “music to my ears.”
NIU kicker John Richardson tied a school record with five field goals, connecting from 43, 26, 43, 47, and 29 yards, the last of which gave NIU the lead with 26 seconds remaining.
It was the second time in as many trips to the Glass Bowl that Richardson won the game with a field goal in the final minute.
“It’d be awesome to come in here and beat the crap out of Toledo,” he joked after the game, “but doing that to them is the second-best option. That’s always fun.”
NIU ran the ball a whopping 55 times against Toledo, compiling 242 rushing yards, 193 of which were in the first half.
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi went 14-for-24 passing for only 154 yards with an interception, but he made the best throw of the game in the final minute. With the Huskies down, 20-19, he found man-to-man coverage and dropped a perfect ball into Tyrice Richie, who stepped out of bounds at the Toledo 9-yard line with 46 seconds to play, assuring that NIU could exhaust Toledo of all three timeouts and kick a field goal.
“I can’t tell you the call, but it was clutch. It was clutch,” Hammock said of Lombardi’s throw. “He sat in the pocket – they were blitzing us all day – the line gave him enough time, he [threw] a nice ball, and Richie ran under it nicely. You have to make those types of plays to win those types of games.”
The game went into the final seconds despite NIU managing only 15 points on seven trips inside Toledo’s 30-yard line. The Huskies’ only touchdown of the day came on Antario Brown’s 37-yard dash in the second quarter.
The Huskies also committed a series of costly penalties, including a false start with the ball on the Toledo 1-yard line that led to a missed field goal attempt and a pass interference penalty late in the game that bailed out Toledo on a fourth-and-long, setting up the Rockets’ touchdown to take the lead.
Even with the mistakes, however, NIU scraped together the win by stopping the Rockets’ 2-point conversion attempt and driving 60 yards in nine plays to set up the field goal.
“I think it just shows how mature our team is becoming,” running back Clint Ratkovich said. “In these close games, it can be easy to give it away, but we haven’t really done that. We’ve fought through in these close games and been able to persevere.”
At the midway point of the season, NIU finds itself off to a good start – and now the trick is to keep it going.
“I think our guys are building confidence weekly, they’re getting better, and we’ve got to continue to push them to get better,” Hammock said. “We will not be complacent. We’re going to get on that practice field and get after them and make sure they understand this is how we need to play.”