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The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

The Student News Site of Northern Illinois University

Northern Star

Looking back on football’s rocky season

Tim Dodge
Redshirt junior running back Gavin Williams (21) runs with the ball looking to get past Western Michigan’s defense. The Huskies will participate in the Camellia Bowl after an up-and-down season. (Tim Dodge | Northern Star)

DeKALB – After rattling off five wins in its final seven games, NIU football (6-6, 5-3 MAC) is bowl-bound for the second time in the last three years.

The Huskies will face Arkansas State in the Camellia Bowl on Dec. 23 in search of their first bowl game victory since 2011. 


Despite a 1-4 start and a four-game losing streak in September, the Huskies punched their postseason ticket with a 37-27 victory over Kent State University in their final regular season game.

The Huskies offense struggled mightily during the losing streak, scoring over 14 points just once. The defense kept the offense in three of the four games, but it wasn’t enough as the offense turned the ball over seven times during this stretch.

NIU immediately followed its four-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak to climb back to .500 at 4-4. The winning streak started with a 55-14 rout over the University of Akron and was followed by wins over bowl bound Ohio University and bowl bound Eastern Michigan University. 

The NIU defense was dominant during this stretch, allowing no more than 14 points in any of the three wins. The fourth quarter was where the defense shined the brightest, allowing zero points during the win streak and taking the ball away five times in the final frame. 

Junior running back Antario Brown led the charge offensively during the win streak, rushing for 340 yards and 5 rushing touchdowns. Redshirt senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi took care of the ball, combining for four touchdowns and avoiding the turnover bug completely. 

The Huskies’ hot and cold ways continued the rest of the season, splitting their final four games, ending the season 6-6. NIU faltered against Central Michigan and Ball State before taking down Western Michigan and Kent State to close out the regular season.



NIU opened its season with a 27-24 overtime statement win at Boston College. Despite never trailing in regulation, the Huskies found themselves down 24-21 in overtime, before Lombardi rushed for the game-winning score. 

Brown led the way offensively with one rushing touchdown and receiving touchdown. Junior safety Nate Valcarcel tallied up 5 tackles and 1 tackle for loss in the Huskies’ upset win. 

The Huskies welcomed the red-hot Ohio University Bobcats to Huskie Stadium for the homecoming game. Ohio brought a five-game winning streak to DeKalb, only to see it snapped by the 2-4 Huskies, thanks to a monstrous second half from the defense.

Valcarcel, junior cornerback Javaughn Byrd and redshirt sophomore safety Cyrus McGarrell all came up with fourth quarter interceptions to seal the 23-13 NIU victory, handing Ohio its first conference loss of the season.


In a must-win game for bowl eligibility, the Huskies defeated Western Michigan University on senior night 24-0. NIU football head coach Thomas Hammock called the Huskies win the “best game of the season.”

Brown once again led the charge offensively, rushing for 159 yards and 2 touchdowns on 21 carries. The Huskies’ offense dominated the time of possession by over 18 minutes. This allowed the Huskies’ defense to stay fresh and shut down the Bronco offense.


Coming off of a road victory against a power five opponent in week one, the Huskies fell flat in their home opener, falling to Southern Illinois 14-11. NIU redshirt sophomore kicker Jake Seibert converted just one of his three field goal attempts, and the offense was unable to get in the endzone until the fourth quarter. 

Lombardi threw for 297 yards and 1 touchdown, but also threw 3 interceptions, including the game sealing interception with 42 seconds left. The Huskies outgained the Salukis by over 140 yards, but losing the turnover battle 3-0 was too much to overcome. 

After a blowout loss at the University of Nebraska, the Huskies returned home to play the University of Tulsa and lost another winnable game 22-14. The Huskies were outscored 10-0 in the fourth quarter, after leading 14-12 heading into the final frame. 

Interceptions from Valcarcel and redshirt sophomore safety Muhammed Jammeh weren’t enough to overcome 2 interceptions from redshirt sophomore quarterback Ethan Hampton. Hampton took over mid-game for an underperforming Lombardi. Similar to how the game against Southern Illinois ended, the Huskies threw a game-sealing interception late in the fourth quarter.

Needing two wins in their final four games to become bowl eligible, the Huskies hosted the 2-7 Ball State University Cardinals on Nov. 7. After taking a 17-10 fourth quarter lead thanks to a touchdown from redshirt junior wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph, two Lombardi fumbles led to 10 unanswered points from the Cardinals, allowing Ball State to steal a 20-17 victory. 


Brown was the Huskies’ workhorse in 2023, rushing 187 times for 1,164 yards and 10 touchdowns. His performance earned him a 2023 First Team All-MAC selection. 

The offense leaned heavily on Brown, as he rushed at least 10 times in every game this season. Brown’s best game of the season came against the University of Akron, rushing for 280 yards and 4 touchdowns. 

In addition to All-MAC Second Team Honorees senior defensive tackle James Ester and junior cornerback Javaughn Byrd, Valcarcel and junior defensive end Raishein Thomas were huge contributors to a Huskie defense that finished the year top-25 in total defense and top-10 in pass defense, according to ESPN.

Valcarcel finished the 2023 season with 42 total tackles, led the Huskies with 3 interceptions and recovered a fumble for a touchdown. 

Thomas finished 2023 as the Huskies leading tackler with 69 total tackles. He also added 7.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. 

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