Football preps for tough EMU team

The 2-2 Huskies open Mid-American Conference play with their homecoming game Saturday against the 3-1 Eagles


Sean Reed | Northern Star

COVID-freshman running back Harrison Waylee (left), junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi (middle) and redshirt junior wide reciever Cole Tucker celebrate a touchdown run by Lombardi in NIU’s 41-14 win on Sept. 25 against the University of Maine at Huskie Stadium. The Huskies take a 2-2 record into conference play that begins this weekend against EMU.

By James Krause

DeKALB — The Huskies are set to celebrate Homecoming with the beginning of Mid-American Conference play as they face the 3-1 Eastern Michigan University Eagles at 1:30 p.m. Saturday.

NIU’s record in their non-conference portion of games was an even 2-2, including a 41-14 win last week over the University of Maine. With the most important games of the year coming down the road, Hammock said his team hadn’t reached its peak just yet.

“We have not played our best football yet, but we’re fighting like heck to continue to improve and get better,” Hammock said. “Hopefully, we can do that Saturday against a quality football team in Eastern Michigan.”

The Huskies won last week behind the play of junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who scored a combined four touchdowns for NIU in a performance that earned him MAC Offensive Player of the Week honors. The former Michigan State quarterback Lombardi will be paired against another power-five caliber quarterback in Eagles senior quarterback Ben Bryant. 

Bryant, a transfer from Cincinnati University with offers originally from five power-five conference schools, has started the last two games for EMU and threw four touchdown passes in their win last week against Texas State University. Hammock said Bryant gives EMU a precision passer that makes their offense even tougher to face.

“The thing Bryant gives them is the ability to be very precise in the passing game,” Hammock said. “He’s a better athlete than I think people give him credit for. We have to honor him in the run game, and he has great anticipation. They have a system where if they know what coverage you’re in, they know the plays to call.”

Along with 228 passing yards, Bryant gained 53 rushing yards and another touchdown on the ground against Texas State. According to redshirt freshman defensive tackle Demond Taylor Jr., applying pressure to Bryant is going to be the secret to slowing the Eagles’ offense.

“It’s very important to get pressure on him because he’s a guy who can run too,” Taylor said. “We have to corral him and get him out of the pocket when we can and make him throw on the run.”

Taylor and the defensive line will have to contend with junior offensive lineman Sidy Sow, a third-team all-conference selection in 2020.

When the Huskies have the ball, they will have to fend off a pair of great defensive ends in senior Turan Rush and sophomore Jose Ramirez. Rush and Ramirez have combined for 19 total hurries and five sacks.

Hammock said the Eagles duo will challenge the Huskies’ offensive line in physicality. NIU has only allowed three sacks all season, the second fewest in the MAC.

“When you play a good edge rusher, it’s about the strain and the finish,” Hammock said. “We have to continue to strain to the whistle. These two pass rushers are high motor players that will continue to grind and find a way to that quarterback. We have to find a way to match their intensity every snap.”

A win Saturday would be Hammock’s first victory to open the conference season since taking over in 2019. Last season, the Huskies closed out their 0-6 season with a loss to EMU 41-33 on the road.

Kickoff is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. at Huskie Stadium, with the broadcast being on ESPN+.