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The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

COLUMN: NIU football has offensive quandary

Nyla Owens
Redshirt sophomore Quarterback Ethan Hampton looks for an open pass during Saturday’s game against the University of Tulsa. Tulsa defeated the Huskies by a final score of 22-14. (Nyla Owens | Northern Star)

Amidst the roaring enthusiasm of college football, NIU’s offensive performance stands as a riddle wrapped in an enigma. 

With an aura of uncertainty surrounding roster management, a cloud of doubt lingering over play calling decisions and a perplexing inability to translate strategy into execution on the field, DeKalb has transformed into an unexpected hotbed of football turmoil. 

Let’s delve deeper into this offensive conundrum, dissecting the intricate details that have left NIU fans bewildered and yearning for answers.


In the midst of a looming quarterback controversy, NIU’s offensive struggles have been glaringly evident. Ranked 128th out of 133 institutions according to SportsReference in points per game – an average of 15.8, the Huskies’ offensive performance has left much to be desired.

The root of NIU’s offensive struggles can be traced to the lack of consistency at the quarterback position. 

Rocky Lombardi, the superlative redshirt senior quarterback, once hailed as a hero for his role in the 2021 MAC championship, has seen a stark decline in his performance. Lombardi’s current completion rate barely scrapes over 50%, with a meager one touchdown pass and four interceptions, ranking him 135th in the nation with a 14.2 total quarterback rating.

Pass protection hasn’t been kind to Lombardi either, as he’s been wrapped up and throttled on eight different occasions. However, the most disconcerting element of his performance is his difficulty in reading the field and executing sound decisions. 

Lombardi’s regression made it evident that a change at the quarterback position was imperative. However, the alternative option doesn’t offer a significant improvement.

Enter redshirt sophomore Ethan Hampton. Following Lombardi’s costly turnover against Tulsa, where the ball slipped from his grasp leading to a safety, head football coach Thomas Hammock pivoted to Hampton to find some type of offensive continuity. 

During his initial scoring drive, Hampton guided the Huskies down the field and unquestionably delivered a superior performance to Lombardi throughout the game. However, he also had two costly interceptions, one of which occurred at a crucial juncture when the Huskies urgently needed to put points on the board. 

Hammock remains undecided on his choice for a starting quarterback going forward.

“We’ll evaluate those guys (Hampton and Lombardi) and see who gives us the best chance to win this week,” Hammock said via an NIU post-game press conference. “We’ll watch the tape, watch it intently; but like I said, Ethan threw two picks, so we can’t sit up here and say he’s the guy right now.” 

Hammock’s indecision on the starting quarterback further compounds the issue. The player who ultimately secures the role must demonstrate rapid and substantial improvement, or the outlook for the team appears bleak.


While it is true that offensive skill players are not performing up to their full capacity, I would be remiss not to attribute some blame to the man responsible for player operations.

I am not advocating for Hammock’s dismissal, but the current trajectory of the team suggests a bleak future. It’s the situational decisions that often leave me feeling bewildered and perplexed.

Case in point: Saturday’s debacle on turf. After activating the quarterback carousel – swapping Lombardi for Hampton – Hammock decided to reinsert Lombardi for a QB sneak on their 28-yard line while NIU had the lead. The Huskies were stopped dead in their tracks, and Tulsa scored on the ensuing drive. 

In addition to making puzzling situational decisions, Hammock also chose to deviate from what had been giving the offense momentum – junior running back Justin Lynch’s versatility and playmaking savvy. 

Lynch sparked an offensive resurgence in the third quarter. As a rusher, Lynch tailed an impressive 84 yards on eight attempts, resulting in a rushing touchdown and a 10.5-yard per-carry average. 

What does Hammock do? He removes Lynch for the remainder of the game and reverts to the same offensive strategy that has been ineffective since Week 2. 

These two decisions are just a sample of confusing choices that have characterized the NIU offense under Hammock’s leadership. If decisions like this persist as a recurring theme, then NIU might be compelled to begin scouting for a potential replacement.


In the spirit of fairness and recognizing that Hammock likely wasn’t the sole decision-maker, let’s dive into an assessment of the puzzling play calls that unfolded during NIU’s home opener against Southern Illinois University.

During that game, NIU had a mere 12 opportunities to find the end zone, and the results were far from satisfactory. Eight of those chances concluded in a fashion that left us, the fans, almost aghast: three interceptions, four punts and one turnover on downs.

Despite two impressive deep shots to senior wide receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz, the vertical passing game was conspicuously absent. Lombardi’s completions primarily relied on quick out-routes, simple check-downs and completions in the flats, highlighting the offense’s heavy dependence on short and intermediate throws.

Now, you might wonder, “Isn’t it up to Lombardi to take those deep shots, and the receivers’ job to create opportunities for them?” Well, the answer isn’t that simple. 

The absence of deep passes wasn’t solely due to Lombardi’s reluctance or receivers’ failure to get open deep. It seemed to be a systemic issue, one originating from the coaching staff’s game plan. While short and safe passes can offer some consistency, they also render the offense predictable and limit its explosive potential.

Moreover, forcing junior running back Antario Brown and others to shoulder most of the offensive workload the ball is a formula for disaster. Not only that, but NIU has narrowed its rushing approach to primarily focus on inside zone runs, favoring a direct path up the middle instead of utilizing the outside.

I’m not suggesting a complete overhaul of NIU football’s offensive scheme, nor do I have the authority to make such a call. I echo the sentiments of the fans when I express our desire for an electrifying and unpredictable offense, one that can not only keep us on the edge of our seats but also drive productivity and success on the field.


NIU football faces challenges that extend beyond just offensive play calling, roster management and underwhelming quarterback play. However, it’s these three aspects that are the most worrisome and must be addressed or reduced in order to spark a mid-season resurgence.

Taking decisive action, Hammock and his team must address these issues, or NIU will once again find itself in the midst of another disappointing season.

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