DeKALB - Northern Illinois led by two touchdowns in the third quarter, fueled by a strong passing attack, but a third-quarter defensive collapse caused the game to slip away, and the Huskies lost, 38-28, to Vanderbilt.
Here are five takeaways from the Week 3 SEC-MAC matchup:
Missed tackles hold defense down as it hemorrhages 24 points in the second half
Missed tackles were a big reason for NIU’s defensive struggles. The 31-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback A.J. Swann to Will Sheppard was the most notable example of the tackling woes, as Vanderbilt tied the game 28-28 late in the third quarter after NIU led 28-14 earlier in the frame. The Huskies also gave up several chain-moving plays that led to scoring drives due to poor tackling.
After holding the Commodores to 14 points in the first half, the Huskies gave up 21 points in the third quarter. Mistakes started to snowball after a personal foul penalty on C.J. Brown’s third-quarter fumble return, which he returned inside the 20 with a two-score lead but instead started in Vandy territory, ended with no points, and started the Commodores’ run.
A holding penalty on a fake punt run by Tom Foley negated a 23-yard chain-moving play on the ensuing NIU drive.
After that, Sheppard scored the 31-yard game-tying touchdown, then Vanderbilt took the lead for good at 35-28 on a 13-yard touchdown pass from Swan to Sheppard, as 1:07 remained in the third quarter.
Hampton plays well in relief of Lombardi, keeps offense humming
Backup quarterback Ethan Hampton was efficient as a game manager in the first half in relief of starter Rocky Lombardi, who was injured sliding at the end of a first-down run. Hampton went 4 for 4 with 23 passing yards and a passing touchdown in his first two drives of the game. The 3-yard touchdown pass to receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz capped a 14-play, 75-yard drive initiated by Lombardi, and came with 5:32 remaining in the first half.
After a somewhat slow start by the backfield, Antario Brown ripped off a 51-yard touchdown run with 37 seconds left in the half, putting the Huskies ahead, 21-14.
Brown was the leading NIU rusher in the first half, rushing five times for 60 yards.
Hampton finished the game 12 for 19 with 124 passing yards and two passing touchdowns.
Perfect start for Lombardi
Lombardi operated with surgical precision before his injury on the opening NIU drive, completing 4 of 4 pass attempts for 59 yards and a touchdown. The highlight of the 12-play, 80-yard scoring drive was a 33-yard bomb from Lombardi to receiver Fabian McCray.
Lombardi laid the ball up over a trailing defender, and McCray made a nice adjustment, pirouetting for the catch before he was brought down at the one-yard line. Lombardi capped the scoring drive with a one-yard touchdown pass to Cole Tucker on the next play, tying the game at 7-7 with 4:56 to play in the first quarter.
The Huskies never faced a third down on the opening drive - a series where Lombardi completed passes of 12, 13 and 33 yards.
Through the first two offensive series, Lombardi was 7 for 7 with 79 passing yards and a touchdown. He exited the game late in the second quarter with an injury, and was replaced by backup Ethan Hampton.
Huge third-down stop helps Huskies take second-quarter lead
The NIU defense surrendered 14 points on the first two drives - series which spanned 80 and 75 yards. Missed tackles were an issue on the first two series, as the Huskies struggled to bring down Vanderbilt running back Ray Davis and wide receiver Sheppard. Davis gained 57 rushing yards and 17 receiving yards on the first two drives, while Sheppard picked up 49 yards on four receptions. The Commodores started the game 4 for 4 on third downs.
Late in second quarter, the defense got its first third-down stop, forcing an AJ Swann incompletion on a pass intended for Devin Boddie. The Commodores punted on the next play, and the Huskies answered with a 7-play, 81-yard scoring drive to take a 21-14 lead before halftime.
Cornerback Jordan Grandy forced a fumble at the NIU 26-yard line, and safety C.J. Brown recovered to thwart Vanderbilt’s first second-half drive and keep the 28-14 lead intact.
Offense starts second half with a bang
The Huskie offense made quick work of the Commodores’ defense at the start of the second half, marching 75 yards on three plays to seize a two-score lead. The culminating play of the scoring drive was a 70-yard Hampton touchdown pass to Tucker.
After making a tackler miss near the right sideline, Tucker reversed field, jetted down the left sideline and into the end zone. NIU took a 28-14 lead with 13:37 left in the third following the scoring play.