DeKALB – Sometimes, figuring out the reason for a loss takes going beyond the stats, consuming hours of game film and coming up with pages of nuanced and technical recommendations.
Other times a team throws three interceptions, averages 1.9 yards per carry and misses two field goals.
“We’ve been trying to trying to tell people our defense is a real deal. They are and you know obviously this offense needs to improve. But it will improve.”— Rocky Lombardi, NIU quarterback
NIU lost to Southern Illinois 14-11 on Saturday. And those above stats aren’t hypothetical. They’re the three main reasons the Huskies aren’t going to be 2-0 heading into Nebraska on Saturday.
The Huskies ran the ball 34 times for 63 yards. Antario Brown ran 22 times for 59 yards to lead the Huskies. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi was sacked four times, and he finished with minus 10 rushing yards on seven carries. NIU wasn’t sacked the previous week.
NIU coach Thomas Hammock said the Salukis sold out to be disruptive in the NIU backfield against both the run and pass, and since someone did it to the Huskies this week, they’ll continue to see it.
“You know, it was tough. It was a challenge,” Hammock said. “This probably was the hardest game for us to be able to run the ball in my tenure. Thirty-four carries for 63 yards, that’s almost embarrassing. It was the run game, and we gave up four sacks.”
Lombardi, who missed most of last year and got a medical redshirt to return for his seventh collegiate season, threw his first touchdown pass of the season, a 62-yard deep strike to Kacper Rutkiewicz. But he also threw three interceptions, including one in the closing seconds with the Huskies on the verge of field goal territory.
And the defense kept giving him and the offense chances, especially in the fourth quarter. SIU had only two first downs and 30 yards of offense in the fourth quarter. But two of Lombardi’s picks came in the fourth.
The defense has turned a big corner after last year, allowing an average of 269 yards per game so far this year.
Rutkiwiecz said the defensive performance does motivate the offense, even if the results didn’t show it Saturday.
“You want to go get a successful drive after they’re working,” said Rutkiewicz, who had six catches for 139 yards in a game in which Lombardi threw for 297. “They allowed 14 points. If they allow 14 points, we’re going to win a lot of games once we get this offense going. ... So we’re going to start winning some games.”
Lombardi said he believes the defense is improved from last year, and he added that the offense will come around to match it.
“It’s really exciting to see them play the way that they’re playing,” Lombardi said. “I kind of felt it during fall camp, and we’ve been trying to tell people our defense is the real deal. They are, and you know, obviously, this offense needs to improve. But it will improve.”
The Huskies will try to right the ship next week at 0-2 Nebraska, a team coming off a 36-14 loss to Colorado.
And although they head into that game with some, let’s call them less than ideal offensive output, they also have a surging defense. Not only did Southern Illinois only manage 219 yards of total offense, but the Huskies clamped down when it mattered, allowing the Salukis to convert only one of 11 third downs. SIU also only held the ball for 23:42 in the win.
The NIU defense also held the Salukis to 2.7 yards per carry. And this was a defense that last year was 114th in scoring defense and 115th in third-down conversion defense.
“We’re just playing fast and trying to give our offense a chance to win the game,” said safety Jordan Hansen, who tied for the team lead with six tackles, added one of five NIU sacks and had a key punt rush that set up a short field on NIU’s final offensive drive. “We know we’ve got good players on defense, and if we do our jobs and read our keys, we’ll make good plays.”