DeKALB, IL – A 15-play, 80-yard game capped by a Rocky Lombardi (Clive, Iowa/Valley/Michigan State) one-yard touchdown run gave the NIU Huskies a 20-13 lead with just over a minute left and Devont O’Malley (Midlothian, Ill./Bremen) sealed the victory with an interception as NIU topped Eastern Michigan for its third straight victory Saturday afternoon (Oct. 21) at Huskie Stadium.
NIU converted three third downs and a fourth down in its game-winning drive as the Huskies took the lead with 7:58 to play and Lombardi capped the drive with 1:11 on the clock. The Huskie signal caller went 5-of-5 on the road for 51 yards, including a 26-yard connection with Grayson Barnes (Rocklin, CA/Rocklin/American River CC) on third-and-14 to keep the drive alive.
Two plays later, Gavin Williams (Altoona, Iowa/Dowling Catholic/Iowa) scampered 34 yards down the sideline to the Eastern Michigan two-yard line. After the Huskies forced the Eagles to use all of their timeouts, Lombardi scored to put the Huskies up 20-13.
“We weren’t going to give them the ball back until we scored,” Hammock said of the final touchdown. “They came out and made plays. Grayson Barnes had a great catch at third. Gavin Williams with a great run and then Rocky [Lombardi] at the end of the drive to kneel, be smart with the ball and make them use their timeouts so they have to score a touchdown with no timeouts.”
Taking over with just over a minute to play, Eastern Michigan moved right across midfield to the NIU 48 before a pressure from James Ester (Detroit, Mich./Cass Tech) ripped the ball in midair out of Eastern Michigan linebacker Austin Smith’s hand and O’Malley made the interception to preserve the win for the Huskies.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our players and coaching staff,” the NIU head coach said Thomas Hammack. “Ours [players] were durable. The coaches did a fantastic job making adjustments to the game plan. Wind was a factor. I thought if we won special teams we would win the game and our special teams guys did a phenomenal job.”
The win was the third straight for the Huskies as they moved to 4-4 on the season to get back to .500 and improve to 3-1 in the MAC. Eastern Michigan fell to 4-4, 2-2 MAC.
Facing a north-south wind gusting up to 35 mph, both offenses were held under 300 yards. NIU gained 289 yards while EMU put up 257. The Huskie defense forced two turnovers in the fourth quarter and allowed the Eagles just two first downs in the period, paving the way for NIU’s comeback. Cyrus McGarrel intercepted a pass for the second straight game while To Jayden Delphine eight tackles lead NIU.
The Huskies offense was led by Williams, who rushed for 80 yards on just seven carries in the game. Trayvon Rudolph (Crete, IL/Crete Monee HS) led the team in receiving yards with 55 on seven receptions, while Barnes caught three passes for 44 yards. Lombardi completed 21 of 33 passes for 173 yards and a rushing touchdown. The Huskie offense has now gone three straight games without allowing a turnover.
NIU got the opening kickoff and struck first after a nine-play, 75-yard drive was capped by a two-yard touchdown run by Ontario Brown (Savannah, GA / Beach).
EMU responded quickly and tied the game at seven after Samson Evans rushed in from two yards out to cap a nine-play, 65-yard drive. The Eagles took a 10-7 lead with 8:21 left in the first half on a 34-yard field goal by Jesus Gomez.
NIU came back to score on a 35-yard field goal by Woodill with 14 seconds left in the half after a 10-play, 40-yard drive.
The Eagles regained the lead early in the third quarter, driving 50 yards in 12 plays to set up a 37-yard field goal by Gomez. With 8:28 to play in the third, EMU led 13-10.
After exchanging punts, NIU came back again. Starting with 3:56 to play in the third, the Huskies drove 44 yards in nine plays and 4:03. Lombardi completed passes from 12 yards to Trayvon Rudolph and 14 yards to freshman Dan Partridge to start the drive. Facing third-and-18 from the EMU 48 after a delay of game penalty, Lombardi fumbled Davis Patterson for 20 yards for a first down. Four plays later, Udil tied the game at 13 with a 39-yard field goal.
In the fourth quarter, two stops by the Huskies’ defense put the team with the ball and 7:58 to play.
On third-and-five from the 25, Lombardi found Rudolph for six yards to move the chains. A sack forced NIU into a third-and-14, Lombardi found Jaylen Johnson (Aurora, IL/Metea Valley HS) for 13 yards. On fourth and one freshman running back Christian Nash (Omaha, Neb, / Millard South) pushed for two yards as the clock ticked down under three minutes.
NIU was backed once again by a hold to set up another third-and-14. Lombardi found Barnes on the right side of the field for 26 yards to move the ball to the EMU 36. After an incomplete pass on first down, Williams set the team on the Eagles’ two-yard line with a 34-yard run as he broke to the outside of the field.
Lombardi then took a knee, forcing the Eagles to use their final two timeouts, then drove into the endzone on third-and-goal from the one-yard line with just over a minute remaining.
The ensuing possession was stopped by the Huskies’ defense. On second down, Neveah Sanders forced EMU quarterback Austin Smith to fumble and two plays later, Smith was hit while throwing and O’Malley grabbed the interception and the Huskies’ victory.
NIU will have 10 days before they hit the road to take on Central Michigan on Halloween night as the #MACtion shifts to weeknights. The Huskies’ next home game is Tuesday, Nov. 7 against Ball State.
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