Little plays turn big in NIU’s 2-point loss at Toledo

‘Some things got cleaned up, and some things reared their ugly face’

NIU running back Antario Brown looks for a hole in the Toledo line in the Huskies' 35-33 loss on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 at the Glass Bowl.

TOLEDO, Ohio – In the Mid-American Conference, where the difference between the top of a division and the middle often is marginal, seasons can be swayed by the small details.

And in a tense final minute at Toledo, NIU experienced a dose of how much the little plays can matter.

NIU’s slumping offense came to life, but the Huskies found themselves one fewer mistake, one more defensive stop or one more play away from victory in a 35-33 defeat at the Glass Bowl.

The Huskies’ defense allowed six plays of 20-plus yards, the offense lost a key fumble inside the Toledo 5-yard line, and the special teams surrendered an ill-timed kick return of 48 yards – enough to tilt the game in favor of the Rockets when added together.

“We’ve been dealing with some things all season we tried to get cleaned up: Some things got cleaned up, and some things reared their ugly face,” NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. “We’ve been pretty good on defense all season, and Toledo has a great offense – we knew that going into it – but we had to find ways to get some more stops, especially early in the game.”

The MAC opener was not all doom and gloom for NIU (1-4, 0-1 MAC), which created some headway in the running game, made a commendable effort in the fourth quarter and almost pulled off a late heist. Toledo linebacker Dallas Gant nabbed NIU quarterback Rocky Lombardi as the he dashed for the sideline in the final seconds, a tackle that prevented NIU, which was out of timeouts and in Toledo territory, from attempting another play.

The Huskies gained a season-best 444 yards, but an NIU defense that had been allowing fewer than 300 yards per game before Saturday allowed 542 against the Rockets (4-1, 2-0).

Big passing plays accounted for two of Toledo’s touchdowns and set up another, and Toledo quarterback Dequan Finn’s 68-yard scoring connection with receiver Junior Vandeross III ultimately became the game-winning score, a collection of breakdowns that proved costly for NIU.

“This was a really good example of how we have to focus on the little things,” said Huskies safety Nate Valcarcel, who returned a fumble for a touchdown in the game.

“Defensively, it’s about doing our job one [through] 11. We had a couple plays where a guy, myself included, didn’t do that. Not doing the little things can lead to touchdowns or big plays.”

A Huskies offense that had struggled in the first four games found balance against Toledo, as Lombardi threw for 152 yards and two fourth-quarter touchdowns, while Antario Brown rushed for 153 yards on 16 carries – but fullback Brock Lampe’s fumble reaching for the goal line down 14-7 shortly before halftime turned a promising drive into no points.

“I thought we kept them off balance offensively, but we’ve got to maximize our opportunities in the red zone,” Hammock said. “We had one costly fumble, and that changes [things]. It should’ve been 14-14 at halftime.”

As the Huskies fought their way back into the game, a 48-yard kick return by Toledo’s Jacquez Stuart led to the Huskies being pinned inside their own 5-yard line after a defensive stop.

With the tight quarters, the Huskies failed to get a first down and had to punt, on which they had only 10 players on the field, although they escaped the man-down situation mostly unscathed.

“Those are the things we have to be better at, right?” Hammock said. “The guys who are in those positions, especially on special teams, are not starters, so they have to understand the importance of doing their job. They have to do their job every single play, and that’s really what we have to stress to everybody.”

Hammock said before his team boarded the bus back to DeKalb that he liked the fight his team showed Saturday, but attention to detail will be paramount as the Huskies continue their trek through the MAC.

“You’ve got to keep on the details,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to learn from this game. I think we’ll continue to get better. We’ve got to keep fighting.”