Lombardi-less Huskies fall just short of Kentucky upset

NIU finishes within a score of No. 8 team in the nation

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Isabel McSwain

Kentucky freshman wide receiver Barion Brown races past NIU redshirt freshman safety Muhammed Jammeh on a 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown, his second of the game, at the beginning of the third quarter. Brown became the sixth player in the Kentucky Wildcats history to have two touchdown receptions in a game. (Isabel McSwain | Kentucky Kernel)

DeKALB — The Huskies (1-3, 0-0 MAC) battled against No. 8 University of Kentucky (4-0, 1-0 SEC), as they came a score short of the Wildcats Saturday night.

Redshirt senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi was listed as a game-time decision for Saturday’s game, but he ended up not playing. Redshirt freshman quarterback Ethan Hampton and sophomore quarterback Justin Lynch shared the workload under center.

“I loved the way Ethan managed the game and the guys made plays,” head coach Thomas Hammock said. “We didn’t turn the ball over; we had to stay on the field and be effective, and I thought we did that for long stretches in the game.”

Sophomore running back Harrison Waylee led the rushing attack with 63-yards on 18 attempts and zero touchdowns.

NIU’s biggest offensive playmaker on Saturday was redshirt sophomore tight end Tristen Tewes, as he caught two touchdowns from Hampton and racked up 39 yards.

The Huskies’ defense was unable to stop the big plays from Kentucky as they gave up three touchdowns of 40-yards or more. The defense was able to sack Kentucky’s senior quarterback Will Levis five times. They were also able to force two fumbles, recovering one.

“We have confidence in our defensive line, and those guys went out there and did a great job,” Hammock said. “We are only going to get stronger as the season goes along.”

One of the biggest plays of the game for NIU was a dropped interception by sophomore safety C.J. Brown early in the third quarter. After the dropped interception, Kentucky capitalized and scored on a 70-yard touchdown pass.

The game started with a two-yard touchdown pass from Hampton to Tewes on NIU’s opening drive.

The Wildcats also scored on their first drive with a pass from Levis to freshman wide receiver Barion Brown to tie the game at seven.

Kentucky scored again on a 69-yard catch and run from senior wide receiver Tayvion Robinson to put the Wildcats up 14-7.

The Huskies punted the ball back to Kentucky on their next drive, and sophomore cornerback Javaughn Byrd forced Kentucky’s senior running back Kavosiey Smoke to fumble. NIU recovered the ball at Kentucky’s 34-yard line.

Senior wide receiver Shemar Thornton threw a touchdown pass to Tewes, his second touchdown of the night to tie the game at 14 in the final seconds before halftime.

The Huskie defense was able to apply pressure to Levis in the first half, sacking him twice. Hampton went 8-for-12, passing with 77 yards and one touchdown in the first half. The rushing game was also productive, gaining 78 yards.

Levis opened the third quarter with a 70-yard catch and run touchdown to Barion Brown after the dropped interception by C.J. Brown.

Graduate kicker Matt Ruffollo came on to kick a 49-yard field goal to extend the Wildcats’ lead to 24-14.

Kentucky scored again on a pass from Levis to Robinson for a 40-yard touchdown, their second scoring connection of the game.

On the Huskies’ next drive, Hampton found junior wide receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz for a 63-yard play to put NIU inside Kentucky’s five-yard line. Sophomore quarterback Justin Lynch scored on a three yard run six plays later after a fourth down holding call on Kentucky’s defense gave NIU another chance.

NIU attempted a two-point conversion following the touchdown, but were unsuccessful. The Huskies attempted an onside kick to try and get the ball back to tie the game.

The Wildcats recovered and ran out the remaining two minutes of the clock to seal their win, as the Huskies lost their third contest in a row.

“I thought we had every opportunity to go out there and win the football game,” Hammock said. “We just have to continue to fight to get 11 guys to do their job every play.”

The Huskies will play the Ball State University Cardinals at 1 p.m. Saturday at Scheumann Stadium in Muncie, Indiana. The game can be watched on ESPN+. This will be NIU’s first game this season against a Mid-American Conference opponent.