For a season that started with a win at a Power Five school, things have taken a turn for the NIU football team.
The Huskies put up 27 points in that overtime win at Boston College. They’ve scored 11 in each of the past two weeks, losses to Football Championship Subdivision Southern Illinois and a previously winless Nebraska team. And so much about the two losses makes no sense.
That starts with quarterback Rocky Lombardi. He was 11-for-28 passing for 73 yards and an interception against Nebraska. For the year, he has completed 49.5% of his passes for 535 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions. And each game has gotten progressively worse.
And sure, Nebraska has a formidable line that anchors a defense that played well against Minnesota (13-10 loss) and not so well against Colorado (36-14 loss). But for a seventh-year senior who has aspirations of playing beyond this final season, the performance makes no sense.
It was on the last drive, but backup Ethan Hampton completed 6 of 8 passes for 50 yards and the only NIU touchdown in the Nebraska game. While Lombardi was recovering from an injury in the spring, Hampton was taking the reps with the starters during spring drills. Coach Thomas Hammock said there’s no change coming yet. He said there were six first-half drops by Lombardi’s receivers that changed the tenor of the game.
“If you add six more receptions, I think it’s a different story,” Hammock said after the loss Saturday at Nebraska. “We’re not going to make that decision at this point.”
But there may be changes coming for the Huskies on the line. After the Salukis sacked Lombardi four times, the Huskers got to him three times Saturday. NIU had boasted one of the top offensive lines in the country the past two years in protecting the quarterback, allowing 12 sacks last season. Total.
Hammock credited the Nebraska defensive line for a lot of the issues. But overall the past two weeks, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s practically the same line as last year. But they’ve struggled in both the pass and the run.
And the performance of this rushing offense also makes no sense. The bread and butter of Hammock’s offense in his tenure at NIU, the Huskies ran 22 times for 26 yards against Nebraska. They ran 34 times for 63 yards against the Salukis. That was after 48 carries for 166 yards and the only three rushing touchdowns of the year against Boston College.
Antario Brown averaged more than 6 yards per carry in his career entering this season. He’s averaged 2.8 a carry this year and found the end zone only once. Brown’s lack of production just doesn’t make sense. Gavin Williams, a transfer from Iowa who saw more carries against Nebraska, is averaging 4 yards per carry this year.
“We have to go back and figure out the things we’re asking guys to do,” Hammock said. “Can they get it done? Then we have to look at personnel. Do we have the right guys in the right spots? Especially inside. We have to look at the interior of our offensive line and evaluate what those guys can do, what we’re asking them to do, and if they have the ability to do it.”
Hammock talked effusively this year about the depth at running back and how the young guys could have an impact. But it’s been Brown and Williams. It doesn’t make sense that guys like Christian Nash or Jaylen Poe (unless there are hidden injury issues, always a possibility with the secretive nature of the Huskies) aren’t getting a chance. Freshman Kendrell Flowers had three carries late against the Huskers.
Lombardi wasn’t the only guy back from an injury last year. Trayvon Rudolph set a Mid-American Conference receiving record in 2021 then missed all of 2022. Against Nebraska, he was targeted once. He has five catches for 34 yards on the year. It doesn’t make any sense.
Two straight losses after a Boneyard win make no sense – especially the way NIU has lost them. They head into a home game against Tulsa looking for answers and trying to salvage things before the start of MAC play Sept. 30 at Toledo.
If something doesn’t start clicking soon for the Huskies, the losses will keep piling up for the second year in a row, and it will make perfect sense.
• Eddie Carifio is sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com.