NIU’s energy high ahead of Toledo

Huskies head on the road to meet the Rockets in battle of 3-2 MAC teams

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Khavon Thomas | Northern Star

Junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi rushes to the right against EMU at Huskie Stadium on Oct. 2. Lombardi rushed for his fourth touchdown of the season in NIU’s 27-20 victory.

James Krause, Sports Editor

DeKALB — A pair of 3-2 football teams will meet in Toledo on Saturday when the Huskies take a road trip to face the University of Toledo Rockets.

After going winless in 2020, head coach Thomas Hammock enters this weekend’s conference game with a winning record for the first time in his career.

Following a 27-20 win over the Eastern Michigan University Eagles, Hammock said his team’s improvements come in more ways than one.

“I thought we’d be a much improved football team,” Hammock said. “I think we have a lot to improve upon, but I like the work ethic, the discipline, the toughness they’ve displayed. In that regard, we’re progressing in the right way as a football team.”

The Huskies fended off the Eagles thanks to freshman running back Antario Brown rushing for 101 yards in his first collegiate appearance. Brown filled in for COVID-freshman Harrison Waylee, whose status is unknown for this week after an arm injury took him out of the EMU game.

Redshirt freshman tight end Tristen Tewes, himself filling in for redshirt junior tight end Miles Joiner the last three games, said a “next man up” culture has been established and embraced.

“Coach always preaches that we have depth,” Tewes said. “The mentality is just be ready or stay ready. If the guy in front of you goes down, you know we can count on the next man up to perform just as well.”

The Huskies must prepare to manage the quarterback rotation the Toledo head coach Jason Candle has adopted this season. Sophomore quarterback Carter Bradley and redshirt freshman Dequan Finn have shared snaps this season for the Rockets, but Hammock doesn’t think his team will be caught off guard.

“I think our players have a really good understanding of what each quarterback brings to the table,” Hammock said. “We have to be all hands on deck when the ball is snapped to see that we keep them contained as much as possible.”

The Rockets’ defense might be the strongest in the Mid-American Conference, ranking first in fewest points allowed and second in yards allowed. Tewes said the momentum from the EMU win and hype to face a strong team in Toledo has pushed them in practice.

“I think the team we’re playing, big rivalry week, it gets us going,” Tewes said. “Plus, I think with the win, we boosted our confidence and boosted our morale. It gives everybody the adrenaline coming into practice this morning.”

Toledo is the heavy favorite in many sportsbooks, but such has been the nature of NIU’s football team in 2021. For a team that entered the season ranked last by voters in their division, COVID-freshman C.J. Brown said the Huskies don’t mind the underdog label.

“I would say there has been a chip (on our shoulder,)” Brown said. “Everybody, the voters, ranked us the lowest in the conference. They view us as the underdog, but sometimes it’s good to be the underdog.”

Kickoff for the game is 11 a.m. CST Saturday at the Glass Bowl in Toledo, Ohio. The game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.