Huskies lose to Broncos without starting passer

WMU beats NIU 42-21 in season finale with Rocky Lombardi on the sidelines recovering from injury

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Mingda Wu | Northern Star

Freshman quarterback Ethan Hampton rushes in the first half of NIU’s 42-21 loss to Western Michigan on Nov. 23. Hampton passed for only 23 yards in his first collegiate start, filling in for an injured junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi.

James Krause, Sports Editor

DeKALB — Without starting junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi, the Huskies struggled to get in rhythm in their 42-21 regular season finale loss to the Western Michigan University Broncos on Tuesday.

Head coach Thomas Hammock started freshman quarterback Ethan Hampton over Lombardi as the Michigan State University transfer struggled with an injury sustained three weeks ago.

“It wasn’t really a decision,” Hammock said. “It was a health thing. If Rocky was healthy, we would have played him. (Rocky) got hurt against Kent State, and he’s been battling the last three weeks. With a short turnaround, he just wasn’t able to turn the corner like he has the last two weeks. I feel like by the end of this week, he should be feeling pretty good.”

Hampton went 4-for-10 for 23 yards, turning the ball over once to the Broncos in his first collegiate game. Redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich said the Aurora Christian product handled the situation as best he could. 

“For how young Ethan is, I thought he did a great job of handling the offense,” Ratkovich said. “We didn’t want to go out there and leave him in a bad position. I feel like for how young he is, he’s mature for his age, and he did a great job.”

Ratkovich scored a 96-yard touchdown while freshman running back Antario Brown had two touchdowns and 77 yards. COVID-freshman running back Jay Ducker led the Huskies with 104 rushing yards.

NIU was unable to contain redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby and sophomore wide receiver Skyy Moore. Eleby threw for 338 yards and five touchdowns, four of which were caught by Moore.

“(Moore) is probably one of the best receivers in the conference,” Hammock said. “(Moore) can run the whole route sheet, can do a lot of different things for that offense, and the quarterback can find him. They know what coverage you’re in and can attack each and every coverage.”

Broncos redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby shovels the ball forward in their victory over NIU on Nov. 23. Eleby threw for five touchdowns, including four to sophomore wide reciever Skyy Moore. (Mingda Wu | Northern Star)

The loss in NIU’s first by more than one possession since a 63-10 loss to the University of Michigan on Sept. 18. With an upcoming Mid-American Conference Championship game to prepare for, Hammock said he isn’t going to make rash judgments.

“What I’m not going to do is let one game change the perception of these guys who played all season,” Hammock said. “Going into the season, people thought we’d finish last. We went on to win the division, and now we have a chance to play for a championship. I’m not going to be reactionary and allow one game to affect that.”

Hampton’s first drive started promisingly with a 47-yard rush by Ducker, but Hampton fumbled a snap a few plays later, and WMU recovered the ball. The Broncos capitalized with a touchdown pass by Eleby to senior tight end Brett Borske.

The highlight of the first half for the Huskies was a 96-yard touchdown run by Ratkovich to tie the game in the second. The run was the longest by an NIU player since 1934.

The lead didn’t last long as Moore torched the Huskies’ defense on the next drive, scoring on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Eleby. An NIU return man muffed the ensuing kickoff, and Western recovered, setting up another touchdown connection between Eleby and Moore.

With less than two minutes to go, the Broncos attempted a fourth-down conversion from NIU’s 29. Eleby found his favorite target Moore again for their third touchdown of the half, making it 28-7 at halftime. 

The Huskies’ defense appeared rejuvenated in the second half, forcing two turnovers on downs to start the third quarter. The NIU offense continued to struggle, going three-and-out on their two third quarter possessions. 

WMU added another passing touchdown in the third quarter when Eleby connected with Moore for a 12-yard touchdown.

One play into the fourth quarter, Brown rushed for a 44-yard touchdown to shrink the NIU lead. The Huskies recovered a muffed kickoff return by the Broncos, but redshirt sophomore kicker John Richardson missed a 35-yard attempt to keep the score at 35-14.

Sophomore running back Sean Tyler capped a 115-yard rushing performance with a touchdown run. Brown had another long touchdown run to make the eventual final score of 42-21.

NIU ends the regular season with an 8-4 record and a 6-2 MAC record. The Huskies now await the result of Kent State University’s meeting with Miami University on Saturday to see who they face Dec. 4 in Detroit for the MAC Championship.