NIU defensive turnaround stymies Kent State, lifts Huskies to MAC title

Northern Illinois safety CJ Brown

DETROIT — C.J. Brown leaped for the tipped ball, grabbed it out of the air and took it 26 yards for NIU’s first three-touchdown lead in the MAC Championship against Kent State on Saturday.

On the sideline, NIU running back Jay Ducker said the offense started feeling energized in the Huskies’ 41-23 win for their sixth MAC title.

“It sparks it a lot,” Ducker said. “When C.J. got the pick, I was like shoot, defense can score too. Even with the other pick it just gets a lot of pressure off us.”

The pick-six staked the Huskies to a 23-3 lead with 3:55 left in the third quarter. The Flashes (7-6) added a touchdown on the next drive, but NIU (9-4) answered with a touchdown run by Rocky Lombardi, a stop of the potent Kent State offense, and another Lombardi touchdown as the lead grew to 38-10 with 6:55 left in the fourth quarter.

“All week we were sitting there waiting for the glance to come,” Brown said. “I saw the tip, went up and had to make a play. I feel it was really a game-changing play for us.”

Earlier this week, coach Thomas Hammock said the Huskies were using multiple footballs in practice to keep the team focused and engaged.

He said that wrinkle added by the defensive coaches paid off. NIU had two interceptions in the game after just one in the first 12 games of the season. Dillon Thomas had an interception in the first half.

“All week in practice we preach you’ve got to make plays in the ball when it’s in the air,” Brown said. “All week in practice we have a lot of picks. Today was the same as practice. We came out there and make plays.”

When the teams met last month, Kent State won 52-47 and amassed almost 700 yards of total offense. On Saturday, while the Flashes did outgain the Huskies 391-368, the Huskies ran the football a MAC championship record 61 times, controlling the clock for 40:01.

That included three rushing touchdowns for Lombardi. The last two came on naked bootlegs around the left side in which he went into the end zone untouched. He said the Flashes were committed to stopping Clint Ratkovich in the box - he had a touchdown earlier on a jet sweep - and that left him open.

“They got to put guys in there to stop it,” Lombardi said. “They didn’t honor me, put extra guys in to stop Clint from running downhill and I just ran around the edge.”

In the last game, Kent State’s Marquez Cooper ran for 173 yards, but he had six carries for 5 yards on Saturday.

Hammock said the Huskies switched from a five-man box to a six-man box and it made a difference.

“We learned our lesson the hard way, like we talk about,” Hammock said. “We made our corrections and our kids played lights out today.”

Ducker led the Huskies with 29 carries for 146 yards, while Antario Brown added 75 yards on 14 carries. Lombardi threw for 102 yards and an interception after becoming the first quarterback to throw for 500 yards in the teams’ last meeting.

For the Huskies, the win caps a turnaround from 0-6 last year to conference champions this year. It’s the first under Hammock and the first for the program since 2018.

“This is just the beginning for us,” Hammock said. “I’m sure Rocky didn’t come here to win just one. We have to stay committed to the process and start over and climb the mountain again.”