Huskies pounce Panthers in season opener

Sophomore shine as NIU opens 2022 in winning fashion

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Ivan Meza

Sophomore running back Antario Brown rushes down the left side of the field on a 35-yard touchdown run (Ivan Meza | Northern Star)

DeKALB — A hot start for NIU’s defense and rushing game led to the Huskies’ 34-27 win over the Eastern Illinois University Panthers in Thursday’s season-opener.

Three members of NIU’s running back depth chart scored touchdowns during Thursday’s game. Sophomore running backs Harrison Waylee, Mason Blakemore and Antario Brown each found the endzone in the first half.

Head coach Thomas Hammock had high praise on how his backfield can impact the Huskies’ offensive game plan.

“There’s a lot of comfort level in that (the running game),” Hammock said. “That’s where we can become more dynamic with a quarterback that’s very accurate, playing at a high level, with an O-line that gives them protection. They (opponents) are going to have a lot to worry about.”

The Huskies defense provided two first-half interceptions from sophomore cornerback Eric Rogers, with the first of his college career.

“It’s great to be back,” Rogers said, when asked how he felt about returning and making such an impact on the game. “It felt really good to be able to play and to be out there with my teammates and the opportunities presented themselves.”

The Huskies running backs finished the first half with a combined 154 rushing yards and three total touchdowns. Lombardi and the passing game did not help much in the first half, as he went three for six with only 31 passing yards.

The efforts of the offensive backfield, combined with two interceptions on the defensive side, helped the Huskies enter the second half with a 21-6 lead after a pair of EIU field goals from junior kicker Stone Galloway.

The Panthers came out in the second half with more emphasis on their running game. EIU ran for over 130 yards in the second half after only rushing for 31-yards in the first half. Their defense, however, could not find an answer for redshirt senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi as he led the Huskies down the field and connected with redshirt senior tight end Liam Soraghan for a 13-yard touchdown.

At the end of the third quarter, the Panthers scored their first touchdown of the contest, a 24-yard reception by redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelin Benefield. The Huskies responded with a field goal early in the fourth quarter to make it a 31-13 game.

EIU marched down the field on its next possession and scored on a 13-yard touchdown reception by senior wide receiver Justin Thomas. After another NIU field goal, the Panthers get the ball and score again, this time on an 8-yard touchdown to graduate tight end Jay Vallie to make it a 34-27 game with just over two minutes to play. The Huskie defense seemed to have no answer to the Panther offense in the second half.

A missed 43-yard field goal by Richardson gave the Panthers one last possession to potentially tie the game up. EIU drove down to NIU’s 36-yard line before time ran out on their last-minute comeback attempt.

NIU will be traveling next week to take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane at 6 p.m. Sept. 10 at H.A. Chapman Stadium in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+.