Carifio: With defense solved, offense, special teams popping up to haunt NIU

Call it college football whack-a-mole as problems keep springing up for the Huskies - quarterback likely biggest among them

Northern Illinois University Ethan Hampton, center, finds an opening to gain extra yards during the first half of the game against Tulsa University on Saturday Sep. 23,2023 in DeKalb.

DeKALB – After the NIU defense was near the bottom of the nation in most major categories during a 3-9 season last year, the Huskies are top 50 in many of the same ones – and probably rising after Saturday’s performance.

But every time the Huskies are poised to whack down an opponent, a safety or a fumble or an interception or a missed field goal pops up and has them flailing at the board heading into the start of Mid-American Conference play.

Call it college football whack-a-mole.

After Saturday’s 22-14 loss to Tulsa, it’s clear the NIU defense is the mallet giving the Huskies a fighting chance, while the offense and special teams are the creatures popping their heads up, mocking the team and keeping them from success.

Even if the Huskies manage to thwack that back into place, the special teams haven’t been playing much better. The result is the Huskies are squandering a top-notch defensive showing all year, including holding Tulsa to less than 300 yards of offense.

“If we had this level of defense our whole time, we would have won a lot more games,” fifth-year NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “Now, all of a sudden we can’t play offense, which is unacceptable and unexplainable.”

NIU (1-3) held the Golden Hurricane (2-2) to a three-and-out and two turnovers on their first three possessions, but the offense couldn’t take advantage of any of that. Devin Lafayette forced and James Ester recovered a fumble that ended a Tulsa drive that was poised to put up the first points of the game.

The Huskies took over at their own 6-yard line. But quarterback Rocky Lombardi just dropped ball. It fell into the end zone, and although NIU recovered it, the play still resulted in two points and the ball for Tulsa. The second of three pivotal special-teams miscues, an out-of-bounds kick, set the Golden Hurricane up on the 50, and for the first time they scored on the NIU defense for a 9-0 lead.

That was it for Lombardi the unquestioned starter.

“We can’t give up points on offense,” Hammock said. “It’s hard enough right now. We’re not scoring enough points. To give up points and put our defense in a bad situation, then we kicked the ball out of bounds and give them the ball at the 50-yard line‚ we can’t do that. We needed to change things up.”

Although Lombardi saw playing time later in the game, Ethan Hampton took over a majority of the snaps. In his one series late against Nebraska the previous week, he led the Huskies down the field for a score. He made it 2 for 2 when he led the Huskies on a 20-play, 75-yard drive Saturday that ate up 11:03 and cut the lead to 9-7.

Just when it appeared he was going to be the mallet to beat back the team’s offensive woes, he threw the first of two interceptions as the Huskies looked for at least a late field goal to close the first half and take the lead into the break.

The best quarterback play came from a player listed as a running back who didn’t attempt a pass. Justin Lynch took over on a short field after a Muhammad Jammeh interception. He led them 33 yards with runs of 4 and 29 yards for a 14-9 lead.

Lombardi had a chance for a big play in the third quarter on a QB sneak on fourth-and-1 from the NIU 28, but he was stuffed. Tulsa answered with a field goal to cut the lead to 14-12.

The Golden Hurricane slowed Lynch to start the fourth, forcing a punt and answering with a quick touchdown drive to take the lead at 19-14 with 8:39 left. On the ensuing kickoff, Trayvon Rudolph fumbled at the end of a 21-yard return, and Tulsa converted that turnover into a field goal. The Huskies had a late desperation drive that ended with Hampton tossing his second pick.

And NIU could have put points on the board early, but Jake Siebert missed a 26-yard field goal on the Huskies’ second series that would have put them up 3-0 and still would have kept them ahead after the safety. Siebert is 2 for 5 on field goal attempts this year.

After a 35-11 loss to Nebraska in Week 3, Hammock was definitive that Lombardi was the starter. But after the fumble, he was much more noncommittal to the quarterback situation heading into Saturday’s game at Toledo. Lombardi was 4-for-6 passing for 31 yards, and Hampton was 13 for 23 for 97 yards and the two interceptions.

“We’ll evaluate who gives us the best chance to win,” Hammock said. “We’ll watch the tape intently. But Ethan threw two picks, so you can’t sit here and say he’s the guy right now.”

Finding a quarterback. Getting consistent special teams play. Kick-starting the running game and the offense as a whole. If the Huskies don’t whack these problems next week at Toledo, it’s probably game over for the team.

“Our defense is playing their butt off,” Hammock said. “We have to figure out something on offense. We have to get points on the board to give ourselves a chance. But that’s just not good enough all the way around.”

• Eddie Carifio is sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at