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Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Football begins MAC play against defending champs

Nyla Owens
University of Tulsa special teams unit pushes against NIU punt cover during Saturday games. Tulsa beat the Huskies 22-14. (Nyla Owens | Northern Star)

DeKALB – NIU football (1-3) has an opportunity for a fresh start Saturday against the University of Toledo Rockets (3-1, 1-0 MAC) in the Huskies’ first conference game of the 2023 season. 

The Huskies lost their third consecutive game on Saturday as they were defeated by the University of Tulsa. NIU is looking to start off MAC play with a much-needed win against the reigning MAC champions. 

“Obviously, there’s disappointment with how those last three games played out,” said NIU head football coach Thomas Hammock. “But when they talk about their goals, they say that they want to have a chance to compete for MAC championships. Well, that starts this weekend, whether we were 4-0 or 0-4.” 

After dropping its first game of the season at the University of Illinois, Toledo has rattled off three consecutive wins and holds a 3-0 home record. Despite the Rockets’ recent dominance at home, the Huskies have won five of their last six games played at Toledo. 

“If you want to be the best you have to beat the best,” senior linebacker DaRon Gilbert said. “Right now, they’re the best, so we’re going to take pride in going out there and playing a physical game and bringing home a win.”


During last week’s loss to Tulsa, redshirt senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi was replaced for redshirt sophomore quarterback Ethan Hampton after the first quarter. Hammock and his coaching staff have yet to announce who will be starting under center Saturday against Toledo. 

“We’ll continue to evaluate the quarterback situation as the week goes along,” Hammock said. “But I was really pleased with the way those guys have come out yesterday and today from a practice standpoint. It’s the most engaged they’ve been all season.”

Hammock and the coaching staff are working on getting the offense up to speed with how well the defense is playing.

“Coach Hammock said in a meeting yesterday (Monday) that the defense is playing for each other, playing as one and always communicating,” junior wide receiver Grayson Barnes said. “So we’re trying to pick up on them and their success and bring that over to the offense.”

Despite the Huskies’ continued offensive struggles and scoring under 20 points for a third consecutive game, Hammock is confident that the offense can turn its season around going into MAC play.

“It is much harder to fix a defense than to fix an offense,” Hammock said. “On offense, you are one play away, one block away, one long run away from the confidence necessary.”


The Huskies are currently ranked 25th in the country in total defense, according to the NCAA.

“I think those guys are playing extremely hard on defense,” Hammock said. “I think they’re playing for one another, they have a connection, they have a purpose. The way our defense has transformed gives me the confidence that our offense can do the same thing.”

In addition to being ranked top-25 in total defense, NIU ranks third in the country in passing yards allowed and 16th in passing efficiency defense. 

“A lot of guys come down here and watch film together,” Gilbert said. “I think that pays off when everybody’s on the same page, and everybody can play fast and play physical.”


The Huskies take on Toledo at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Glass Bowl Stadium. The game will be televised on ESPNU, and live stats will be available via StatBroadcast

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