DeKALB – Fresh off a win over a Power Five school, the NIU football team will look to start the year 2-0 with a win against a team in the Football Championship Subdivision Top 25.
The Huskies face FCS No. 23 Southern Illinois at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Huskie Stadium a week after opening the season with a 27-24 overtime win at Boston College.
“Yeah, Rocky needs to play better. I think he’ll be the first person to tell you that. Now he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which is good. You love when players have a chip on their shoulder to play better and to do better. But you know what, he made the plays when it counted, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”— Thomas Hammock, NIU coach
The Salukis and Huskies are playing for the first time since 2007, a 34-31 win in DeKalb for SIU. It was the longest pause in the series history since the schools went from 1961 to 1973 without playing.
Here are three things to watch for when the series resumes Saturday.
Lombardi looking for bounce back from BC game
It had been almost a year since NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi last played, and more than that since he was last fully healthy. And in his return, the seventh-year senior completed only 45% of his passes, with Boston College breaking up five of them. He threw for 165 yards, wasn’t intercepted and didn’t throw for a touchdown, although he did plunge in from 1 yard out in overtime for the game-winner.
“Yeah, Rocky needs to play better,” Huskies head coach Thomas Hammock said. “I think he’ll be the first person to tell you that. Now he’s got a chip on his shoulder, which is good. You love when players have a chip on their shoulder to play better and to do better. But you know what, he made the plays when it counted, and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.”
Hammock said Lombardi will continue to get his opportunities as the Huskies strive toward a balanced offense, adding that he doesn’t think balance means 30 rushing plays and 30 passes, but the same amount of yardage both ways. The Huskies pretty much achieved that Saturday, with 172 yards in the air and 166 yards on the ground, even with 19 more rushing attempts.
Hammock said he was surprised at Lombardi’s performance, but looking at the tape it was all mechanics.
“His feet were bad in situations,” Hammock said. “So you clean up his mechanics, and he hits on a lot of those throws. We can say all we want, we can say he’s a seventh-year senior, but still you have some nerves and anxiousness that come with playing the game of football that I’m sure he experienced. ... This is a young man who thought maybe his career in the game of football was over. I know he’ll settle down this week.”
SIU loaded at the skill positions
Hammock was effusive in his praise of SIU quarterback Nic Baker and the Salukis’ skill players.
“I think from a quarterback in the skill perspective, they are probably better than what we saw a week ago,” Hammock said, referring to a Boston College team NIU shut out in the first half but finished with 338 yards of total offense. “We have to be dialed into what they do.”
The Salukis opened the season with a 49-23 win against Austin Peay. They pounded the ball on the ground, rushing 44 times for 169 yards, with no one back rushing for more than 40 yards.
Baker completed 70% of his passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns without being intercepted. Eight Salukis had a catch in the win, led by Izaiah Hartup’s five for 80 yards and a score.
Winning when it counts
Hammock said since January he’s been hammering into the team the importance of winning close games. It was the reason for the team’s success in 2021, and a big part of the downturn last year.
The team has spent the spring and fall re-creating situations in which it couldn’t convert in 2022. And in the first game of 2023, at least, it paid off.
“The players believe they can get it done, and that’s all that matters,” Hammock said. “They went out there and got it done. We were up 14, then tied, then overtime. All those situations that happened in the game we practiced. As a coach, all you can do is hope your guys are fully prepared for the moment and take advantage of the opportunity, and I think they did that last week.”
Safety Nate Valcarcel had a tackle for loss as part of five overall and helped the defense hold BC to a field goal in overtime.
“It doesn’t matter if we win by 20 or we win by one point, a win is a win,” Valcarcel said. “It’s going into the left column, right? It just shows any way we do it, if we have a win, it’s a win.”
Prediction: NIU 35, Southern Illinois 24