NIU falls to Western Michigan without Rocky Lombardi despite impressive ground attack

NIU running back Antario Brown (26) runs in for a touchdown in the fourth quarter Tuesday Nov. 23rd while taking on Western Michigan.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University fullback Clint Ratkovich said the Huskies didn’t want to make backup quarterback Ethan Hampton throw the ball around a ton in his debut.

Ratkovich had a 96-yard touchdown run and Antario Brown added scoring runs of 44 and 41 yards, but two first-half turnovers proved costly in a 42-21 loss to Western Michigan in the Huskies’ regular-season finale.

“For as young as Ethan is, I thought he did a great job of handling the offense,” Ratkovich said. “We didn’t want to put him in a bad situation, have him go out there and throw the ball around. I feel like being as young as he is, he’s mature for his age and did a great job.”

Hampton, a freshman who joined the team in January after graduating early from Aurora Christian, was pressed into service because regular starter Rocky Lombardi was unavailable.

Coach Thomas Hammock said Lombardi still was dealing with an injury he suffered in the Kent State game, and although he’s played twice since, going on six-days rest proved too much.

“If Rocky was healthy, we would have played him,” Hammock said. “He’s been battling the last three weeks. With a short turnaround he wasn’t able to turn the corner like he has the last three weeks. I feel like by the end of this week he should be feeling pretty good, and we can get him on the practice field Sunday and move forward.”

Lombardi will have plenty of time to rest despite the loss to the Broncos (7-5, 4-4) as the Huskies (8-4, 6-2) will play in the MAC championship game Dec. 4 against either Kent State or Miami.

Hammock said it was a tough situation Hampton found himself in against the Broncos.

“We knew it would be a challenge. It’s just one of those things,” Hammock said. “He’ll grow from it, he’ll learn from it, he’ll use it down the line. He’ll progress as a quarterback because he’s going to be a big-time player for us. This is a great learning experience for him.”

NIU’s ground attack was effective from the start with Jay Ducker going 47 yards on the first play of the game. But three plays later Hampton fumbled and Western Michigan took over, scoring later in the drive.

The Huskies tied the game in the second quarter when Ratkovich broke through the middle of the field, going 96 yards for a TD and the second-longest run in school history.

Ratkovich said he took a quick look behind but was mostly focused on keeping his speed up until the end zone.

“It was just blocked up really well by the O-line,” Ratkovich said. “One guy got through a little bit, I was able to make him miss. From there we just had hats on hats and I was able to outrun the defense. It’s a credit to the offensive line.”

Western Michigan answered on the next drive with a score on a reception by Skyy Moore, then Drew Cassens fumbled the pooch kick. Broncos quarterback Caleb Eleby connected with Moore twice more for touchdowns before the half was over, then added a fourth TD late in the third for a 35-7 lead.

Brown added his two scores in the fourth quarter and now has three scores on only eight carries the past two games.

Hammock said it’s hard to find carries for all the running backs when they’re playing well – Ducker had 104 yards on 13 carries, Ratkovich had 99 yards on four carries, and Brown carried five times for 77 yards.

“Guys are playing well,” Hammock said. “There’s not enough carries. So when you get an opportunity, make the most of it. And Antario has done that. But he’s been able to do that because of the way he’s been practice. ... Hopefully we can get him more carries in the future.”

Hampton finished the game 4 for 10 for 23 yards. He also was sacked twice and ran five times for negative -10 yards.

But the running backs tried to take the pressure off Hampton, and that included Brown making the most of his limited opportunities.

“Every time I get in, I just do what I do,” Brown said. “I do it in practice a lot. Whenever I’m in I just try to make sure I’m perfect at least. But I know that’s not possible, so I just do what I can get.”

* This story has been updated to correct a statement attributed to Hammock.

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