Toledo 35, NIU 33: Five takeways from the Huskies’ loss in the MAC opener

NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi scrambles for yardage against Toledo on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 at the Glass Bowl.

TOLEDO, Ohio – To its credit, NIU turned a game that appeared out of reach into an awfully interesting final few minutes at Toledo, but the late push wasn’t quite enough as the Huskies dropped their Mid-American Conference opener 35-33 at the Glass Bowl.

Toledo (4-1, 2-0 MAC) had a banner offensive day and then held on for dear life against NIU (1-4, 0-1), breaking a stretch of four straight road-team victories in the series between the MAC West rivals.

Here are five observations from the game

Big plays hamper Huskies

NIU, which came into the game ranked third nationally in passing yards allowed, proved susceptible to big plays against Toledo.

Prior to Saturday, the Huskies were one of only 25 Bowl Subdivision teams allowing fewer than 300 yards per game, but Toledo hit the 300 mark by halftime.

The Rockets did a significant portion of their damage with big plays, compiling six offensive plays of 20-plus yards and two kick returns of more than 30 yards. Toledo broke a 48-yard run on its third play, though the NIU defense ultimately held with a fourth-down stop later in the drive.

NIU wasn’t as fortunate later in the half, as Rockets quarterback Dequan Finn threw a 48-yard pass to Jerjuan Newton for the Rockets’ opening touchdown, then set up their second score with a 28-yard completion to Junior Vandeross III — a fourth-and-five conversion — to set up their second touchdown, a Finn run, on the next play.

After the Huskies cut the deficit to eight in the fourth quarter, Vandeross burned NIU again with a 68-yard catch and run for a touchdown that proved to be the winning score.

Toledo’s 542 total yards was the most for an NIU opponent since Coastal Carolina gained 514 in the 2021 Cure Bowl.

Wild… Dog?

NIU pulled off the biggest of the day from a power-oriented Wildcat formation — running back Antario Brown served as the quarterback in a shotgun look — that caught the Rockets’ defense out of position in the first quarter.

The Huskies, who had only one receiver on the field, ran a power play to the right side of the formation, which Brown cut back to the middle after the Toledo defense overcommitted to an outside run. Brown scampered for 80 yards down to the Toledo 5-yard line, setting up Rocky Lombardi’s game-tying, one-yard touchdown run two plays later.

Lone turnover costly

NIU lost only one turnover at Toledo, but it was a consequential giveaway.

With the Rockets ahead 14-7 late in the second quarter, the Huskies drove 62 yards on six plays to the Toledo 3-yard line. But as fullback Brock Lampe reached for the end zone on the next play, he lost the ball and Toledo recovered, leaving NIU without a point from prime position. The Rockets remained in the lead for the rest of the game.

Offensive defense

Down 14 near the midway point of the third quarter, the Huskies faced a fourth-and-two from the Toledo 18-yard line and opted for the safe bet with a short field goal.

NIU kicker Kanon Woodill converted the 32-yard attempt, and the Huskies’ decision paid off on the ensuing Toledo drive. Huskies linebacker Devin Lafayette punched the ball away from Rockets running back Peny Boone, which safety Nate Valcarcel collected for a 50-yard touchdown return that cut the deficit to four.

Offense comes alive

The 2023 season has been an offensive struggle for Northern Illinois, but the Huskies showed some signs of life against Toledo. Brown rushed for 152 yards on 16 carries, and the Huskies’ 427 total yards was by far a season-best.

Lombardi completed 21-for-31 passes for 245 with two fourth-quarter touchdowns and no interceptions.

After Lombardi’s second touchdown pass, a 12-yarder to Chris Carter to make the score 35-33 with 2:23 to go in the game, the Huskies failed to secure the onside kick and had only one timeout remaining.

The NIU forced a punt, but with the Huskies out of timeouts, their final drive ended when Lombardi was tripped while scrambling for a first down, allowing time to expire.