The Northern Illinois Huskies were able to hold off Eastern Illinois’ second half comeback and claim an opening night win, topping the Panthers 34-27.
Eastern, trailing by seven, had the ball deep in Huskie territory as the clock was ticking down. As it hit seven seconds, the Panthers snapped it. Quarterback Jonah O’Brien hit Nile Hill over the middle for an eight yard gain but he was immediately downed by a Huskie player to end the game and preserve the win for NIU.
Early on the Huskies looked sharp offensively, building a 28-6 lead midway through the third quarter. But the defense once again struggled, allowing plenty of yardage and giving up touchdowns in the final 30 minutes. NIU cornerback, Eric Rogers, was able to end some scoring chances for the Panthers. The sophomore had a pair of interceptions in the first half, which was more picks than the Huskies amassed in the regular season all of last year. However, in the second half the NIU offense struggled to get anything going on the ground and had to settle for field goal chances instead of TDs.
EIU, on the other hand, was able to string together some drives and convert on third downs, pulling closer and closer with touchdown drives. Eastern was 8-12 on third downs and actually out-gained the Huskies 441-379. They also had more first downs than the Huskies, with 25 to NIU’s 19.
Lombardi finished the day with 192 yards on 14/22 passing (63.6%) and had a single touchdown, a 13-yard pass to tight end Soragham. His biggest target was the FIU transfer Shemar Thornton. Thornton finished the day with a team-high in receptions (6) and yards (81). Cole Tucker was the only player with multiple receptions. He had four grabs for 67 yards.
On the ground, the trio of Antario Brown, Harrison Waylee, and Mason Blakemore combined for just 187 yards but each of the three found the endzone once. Waylee led the way with 14 carries and 83 yards while Brown added 70 yards on 13 touches. Blakemore averaged 7 yards per carry with his 35 yards on five rushes.
For the Panthers, O’Brien tallied 276 yards and three TDs with two interceptions while going 25/34. Five EIU players had more than three receptions, with Justin Thomas leading all receivers. He had six grabs for 87 yards and a score.
Markenzy Pierre hit the century mark, rushing for exactly 100 yards on his 14 carries (7.1 average). But Jaelin Benefield also added 63 yards on his ten rushes.
The Huskies will have two extra days off to get ready for their first away game next Saturday, September 10th, when they travel south to Oklahoma and take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricanes. They’ll need their defense to tighten up and for that rushing attack to keep things moving for all sixty minutes if they’re going to move to 2-0 on the season.