DeKALB – Both football teams went 3-9. Both are looking for a turnaround. And both don’t want 2023 to start the way 2022 ended – with a loss.
NIU heads to Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, to face Boston College at 11 a.m. Saturday. Boston College leads the all-time series 3-0, with the Eagles winning three-point games in 2015 in Chestnut Hill and 2017 in DeKalb.
Here are three storylines to keep an eye on in the battle.
Rocky Lombardi and Trayvon Rudolph are back
There were no shortage of injuries for the Huskies last year, but missing their quarterback and top receiver definitely stung. Lombardi played four games for the Huskies last year and was able to get a medical redshirt to start his seventh collegiate season under center.
Rudolph, after a breakout 2021 that included multiple receiving records to help the Huskies claim the Mid-American Conference title, was hurt in the preseason and missed the whole season.
Coach Thomas Hammock said both are back at 100%.
“[Lombardi is] out there running around, making plays like he always has. I think he hit 21 miles per hour on the GPS the other day,” Hammock said. “So we’re going to cut it loose. ... They are 100% for a reason.”
In 2021, Rudolph had 14 catches for 309 yards in a game against Kent State, setting school and MAC records. He finished the season with 49 catches, 877 yards and seven touchdowns. He had 14 catches for 232 yards without a TD as a freshman in 2020.
Lombardi will begin his third season with the Huskies after transferring from Michigan State. He’s thrown for 3,242 yards, 20 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his 17-game NIU career.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “It’s been a long road. You know, I haven’t played for probably 11 months now. So I’m excited to be able to get back out there. I’m really fortunate to be able to be back to 100% and ready to roll this week.”
The NIU defense, and the secondary specifically, look for turnaround
The Huskies finished 79th in total defense nationally last year, with opponents averaging 395.7 yards per game. But they were 125th in passing efficiency defense and 100th in passing defense (252.8 yards per game). They allowed 32.8 points per game, 114th in the country.
Two of the four new coaches are on defense – linebackers coach Adam Breske and cornerbacks coach D.J. Bland.
“What I’ve seen in camp is [the secondary’s] ability to play the ball, and I think that has a lot to do with coaching,” Hammock said. “Coach Bland has come in and done a phenomenal job teaching the details and fundamentals of that position. He played corner at Eastern Illinois. When we added him, he’s come in and changed the dynamics. Those guys believe. The athletic ability is there, but the finer details of how to play the position was lacking, and he’s done a phenomenal job getting those guys where they need to be.”
Hammock said he noticed more interceptions from the secondary this offseason. And he isn’t the only one who has noticed.
“One of the biggest things that has me optimistic is we put a lot more emphasis on takeaways,” said middle linebacker Jaden Dolphin, a converted safety. “Takeaways are going to be a huge part of our game. We’ve been working a lot of ball disruption stuff every day, punching at the ball, working our ball skills in the air guarding receivers just getting out the ball. So we should see a lot more turnovers this year.”
The Huskies were 45th nationally with 20 forced turnovers and 91st nationally with eight interceptions.
NIU recruited the Boston College backup QB, and Hammock expects him to play
Sophomore Emmett Moorehead is expected to start at quarterback for the Eagles, having played in 10 games last year and started four. He completed almost 60% of his passes for 1,254 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in splitting his time with Phil Jurkovec.
While Jurkovec has moved on, sophomore Thomas Castellanos has come on board from UCF. He played five games, including part of the American Athletic Conference title game against Tulane. But he entered the portal and chose Boston College.
Hammock said the Huskies recruited Castellanos, but he ended up at BC, and the Huskies brought in C.J. Jordan from Idaho.
“They have some quarterback run-game stuff in their package, so I would anticipate their backup, he’s a young man we recruited – a kid from UCF, a tremendous athlete – I would imagine that he’s going to have an opportunity to make an impact on the game,” Hammock said. “So you know, we have to prepare for both quarterbacks to play, and obviously the differences that may present themselves when a different quarterback is in the game.”
Prediction: Boston College 35, NIU 34