NIU at Toledo: Three things to watch for as Huskies start MAC play

NIU brings surging defense, struggling offense into rivalry showdown

Northern Illinois University quarterback Ethan Hampton passes the ball late in the second quarter on Saturday Sep. 23, 2023, while taking on Tulsa University in DeKalb.

DeKALB – For the past three weeks, NIU has struggled to put up points, as an opening-week win at Boston College has devolved into three straight losses heading into the start of MAC play at Toledo.

The offense hasn’t scored more than two touchdowns during its current three-game losing streak. And the Huskies (1-3) will face a defensive front for Toledo (3-1, 1-0) that includes Judge Culpepper (4.5 sacks), Jeremiah Peters (3.5 sacks) and Terrance Taylor (2.5 sacks).

But which quarterback of NIU’s will they be trying to get to? Here are three things to watch in Saturday’s game, which kicks off at 1 p.m. at the Glass Bowl in Toledo.

Who’s at quarterback?

After an unforced fumble led to a Tulsa safety in a 22-14 home loss last week, Rocky Lombardi was pulled, and Ethan Hampton came in to play quarterback. But Hampton threw two interceptions, and Lombardi saw some more playing time as well.

Coach Thomas Hammock said the team is still evaluating who will start at quarterback. He said both have been practicing well and are engaged despite the struggles — Hammock said eight of the Huskies’ nine turnovers have been from the quarterback spot.

“They have an energy about them. They want the chance to prove themselves,” Hammock said. “You never want to switch quarterbacks, that’s not ideal. But we’re in the process of trying to figure out how to play better offensively.

“I’m confident with both those guys. Whoever gives us the best chance to win on Saturday will be the guy who goes out there.”

Hampton led the Huskies’ only touchdown drive in the closing minutes against Nebraska in a 35-11 loss. He finished 13 of 23 for 97 yards and two interceptions against Tulsa. Lombardi has completed 51% of his passes this year for 566 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions.

NIU is in the bottom 30 in most major offensive categories in the country including total offense (285.5 yards per game, 125th), rushing offense (106.5, 117th), passing offense (180, 109th) and scoring offense (15.8, 126th).

Defense looks to continue strong play

One of the things that Hammock said has him optimistic the Huskies can get back on track is that it’s much easier to fix and offense than a defense, and right now the defense has been performing very well.

“On offense you are one play away, one block away, one long run away from the confidence necessary,” Hammock said. “Defense is a lot more challenging to fix. I think our defensive staff has done a phenomenal job. ... One quarter, one play, one game away from really turning it around.”

Hammock said he’s told the team that when the offense starts clicking, the defense can’t let up.

NIU is third in the country in pass defense, allowing 143 yards per game. The Huskies are also 24th in total defense (298.5 yards per game) and 42nd in sacks (2.5 per game).

“We have to have each others’ backs,” defensive end Demond Taylor said. “Offense is struggling, defense has to pick it up. Defense struggling, offense has to pick it up”

Special teams also struggling

The offensive woes have gotten a lot of attention, but there have been a lot of special team miscues as well. Hammock said the play has been inconsistent on special teams.

“We have a penalty, we have a long return, and then we get a penalty that takes us back,” Hammock said. “We put the ball on the ground on kickoff returns. We shank a punt. We miss a field goal. It’s just been sporadic.”

Ohio State transfer Jake Siebert has been the most sporadic, making 2 of 5 field-goal attempts. He missed two field goals in a 14-11 home loss to Southern Illinois. He also missed a 30-yarder.

Prediction: Toledo 27, NIU 14