When the Gregorian calendar flips from July 31 to August 1 each year, it’s the chief indication to every college football campus in the country that football season is near.
August is simply preparation time for the main event. Preseason rankings are released, players see their names etched into award watchlists, shoulder pad clicks resonate through the crispier air, and every coach and player reiterate the seemingly-rehearsed phrase that they are “focused on winning a conference championship this year.” But a conference championship doesn’t come for everybody, and most players never experience that thrill.
However, when 2022 fall camp initiated for the Northern Illinois Huskies, the idea of winning a conference championship wasn’t a dream or a lofty, unrealistic mission. The Huskies knew they were capable. After all, they claimed the Mid-American Conference crown at Ford Field the prior December. But this time, it was about the incredibly rare feat of winning back-to-back MAC championships — a goal which hadn’t been attained since Northern Illinois reigned supreme over the league in both 2011 and 2012.
Unfortunately for the Huskie faithful, that objective never came to fruition.
In fact, the exact opposite occurred: Northern Illinois finished last in the MAC West, sporting a 3-9 overall record. Injuries are a significant component of the sport of football, but Northern Illinois never received its best shot at securing consecutive MAC titles as injuries overcame two of its premier players, including one before the season even commenced. The towns of DeKalb and Detroit — the annual local of the MAC Championship Game — felt more distant than usual.
Injuries derail dream of going back-to-back
The first blow to NIU’s MAC title chances struck in mid-August. Wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph rapidly molded into a second-team all-MAC selection in 2021, corralling 51 receptions and converting them into 892 yards and seven touchdowns. Rudolph’s breakout was skewed toward the end of that 2021 season, suggesting a captivating 2022 was on the horizon.
But a partial ACL tear in his left knee struck in fall camp, ending a promising follow-up campaign before it even started.
“When it happened, I was thinking it was nothing major,” Rudolph said. “It hurt and I talked to the trainer and he said I was gonna be out for two weeks. Then we got an x-ray, everything was looking fine, but we wanted to make sure we were seeing everything right and they weren’t throwing me out there. When I got my MRI back, I had a partial tear. Hearing about it, it was hard. I couldn’t be out there every game or even in practice just to help out my team.”
The phrase “ACL tear” consists of some of the most devastating words for any athlete to hear, but Rudolph remained one step ahead of the typical recovery process the entire way.
“I was back on my feet quicker than we even thought, because I was always in the training room because I wanted to,” Rudolph said. “They didn’t push me to be in there. I was making sure my knee was gonna be straight when I got back. I got off my crutches sooner than I expected. I was probably off five days after I got on them. The crazy part, when I went to get my surgery in the hospital, they asked if I had crutches. I walked in just with a knee brace, just fine, and they said I was one of the toughest people they met that had an injury like this and didn’t come in with crutches at all. They were shocked I was moving around before I got the surgery.”
Still, Rudolph’s fall Saturdays would be spent donning street clothes as opposed to pads and a black helmet. Despite the setback, the Huskies still possessed immense weaponry on offense, fronted by veteran starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi.
Bad luck wasn’t done visiting the Huskies, however, as in the midst of a competitive Week 3 game against Vanderbilt, Lombardi suffered a similar fate to that of his star receiver.
The quarterback was removed from the game with a leg injury and essentially missed the remainder of the season. He wound up earning just one more start in 2022, pitted against a 9-4 Eastern Michigan team in mid-October. Despite the disparity of the team records, Northern Illinois annihilated the Eagles in 39-10 fashion — showcasing what the Huskies are capable of with a healthy starting quarterback. Bereft of the opportunity to claim another MAC championship, Lombardi found other ways to develop his game when the follow-up act didn’t go according to plan.
“I definitely learned how difficult it was to sit and watch your team not be able to accomplish what they set out to before the season,” Lombardi said. “There’s ups and downs about rehabbing from an injury, and I like to think I have pretty strong willpower and I’m willing to give as much effort necessary or push through any obstacle that steps in my way. I also learned a lot about the game. I got to experience football from the coach’s perspective when I got hurt. I realized I wasn’t gonna play the rest of the season and I basically became an unpaid coach. It not only helped my teammates, but it helped my own game as well. It gave me some insight that I wouldn’t have had without that experience.”
A dynamic duo forms in DeKalb
Rocky Lombardi and Trayvon Rudolph hail from varying football backgrounds. Residing in DeKalb for his college days wasn’t Lombardi’s initial plan when recruited out of Valley High School in Iowa in 2017. The four-star quarterback committed to Michigan State, where he rose to a starting role in 2020 and upended in-state rival Michigan that season. However, the Spartans swapped Lombardi out in favor of Payton Thorne as the weeks progressed, causing the quarterback with nine starts under his belt to seek a new home. When scouring his options, Lombardi placed his firmest belief in the potential of a youthful Northern Illinois roster, understanding the program was tailor-made for him to thrive in a leadership role.
“When it came down to choosing NIU, it came down to choosing a program that I felt like I could make an impact at, where I was valued at,” Lombardi said. “It was a young team that needed leadership. I felt like my skillset filled the needs of the team really well. I felt like it was a great fit for me.”
NIU utilized a heavy dosage of true freshmen in 2020, even thrusting several into the starting lineup. Head coach Thomas Hammock hoped the internal development that occurred in that period of struggle would eventually pay off when 2021 rolled around. One of the benefactors of the Huskies’ freshman laden depth chart was Rudolph, a hopeful prospect who didn’t even hold a scholarship when first arriving on campus.
Rudolph fielded scholarship offers from several MAC schools, including MAC West rivals Toledo and Central Michigan, as well as several FCS programs. But the Crete, Illinois native did not accept those scholarships and wound up committing late, unsure whether he wanted to remain in-state or set up his college residence beyond the borders of Illinois. After much contemplation, he remained homebound by enrolling at Northern Illinois, but he entered the program with walk-on status. Rudolph’s life as a walk-on didn’t last long as several months into his tenure, Hammock rewarded him a scholarship.
“When it happened, I wasn’t surprised, but when it happened at practice, I was surprised because I didn’t know it was coming,” Rudolph said about shedding his walk-on status. “I figured it would come sooner or later based on how I worked and how I helped my teammates. When it came down to who gave me a chance because I wanted to commit late and find the right home for me, (Hammock) gave me a shot.”
The scholarship immediately paid dividends for the program as the true freshman hauled in 14 receptions for 232 yards in 2020’s reduced sample size. But a different version of the former walk-on was unleashed as soon as he was paired with the former Michigan State gunslinger the following fall.
Lombardi certainly understood the talent he was working with in Rudolph from day one.
“He’s got phenomenal ball skills. He can adjust to anything you throw up to him which is a real nice treat,” Lombardi said. “He’s got great speed and he’s pretty smart. Being able to make route adjustments with him or check plays at the line of scrimmage to make sure we’re on the same page, it really helps because it’s basically a no-lose situation there. He’s a pretty unique talent and we’re lucky to have him back this year.”
The true potential of the combo was unearthed on Nov. 3, 2021 in a Wednesday night conference clash with Kent State — a preview of the eventual MAC Championship Game matchup. In the first quarter, Northern Illinois’ then-primary receiver Tyrice Richie exited the game with an injury, forcing Rudolph to step into an expanded role as Lombardi’s new go-to target.
What transpired next could best be described as historic — not just in the annals of NIU history, but in college football as a whole. Lombardi delivered a monstrous 532-yard, three-touchdown explosion from the pocket, while Rudolph scorched the opposing secondary with 309 yards and three touchdowns on 14 receptions. Both yardage totals were school records and Rudolph’s rampage was just the 25th 300-yard performance in FBS history.
“It felt amazing doing it, but at the same time, I was just doing whatever I could to get the W at the end of the day,” Rudolph said. “That was the game we lost Richie, so I figured I had to step up and do a bigger part because he was the leading receiver for us. My mindset was I couldn’t let the team down. Putting up the numbers, it felt amazing. I just showed the potential I had and I haven’t even reached what I can actually give a full game or full season.”
In the 22 months following that statistical outburst, the Lombardi-Rudolph connection has only graced the gridiron five times. But the pairing finally gathers for their highly-anticipated return on Sept. 2 when the Huskies open against Boston College. And now both components of the tandem understand they can manufacture a lethal 300-yard eruption at any moment.
“We’ll try for 400,” Lombardi said.
Turnaround for the ages
When discussing preseason expectations, the 2021 Huskies are one of the most incredible underdog stories to come through the MAC and college football, in general, throughout the 21st century. Northern Illinois transformed a winless 0-6 record in the 2020 pandemic-shortened season into a MAC championship team over the span of one offseason.
“It was a great experience for us because we were like second most in the nation in freshmen starting, so we were just getting the feel of college ball in general,” Rudolph said. “Still, our plan wasn’t to go out there and lose every game. Our plan was still to show these older guys that we can still give you a run for your money. The following season, just having a little experience and being older, and now we have a QB that’s been in the game for some time and could lead us into some situations that we probably thought we wouldn’t be in — that helped out. His leadership helped out.”
The 2021 NIU experience was a cardiac roller coaster of emotions for the fanbase. On seemingly a weekly basis, the Huskies were entangled in a close affair with their opponent, yet they triumphed on a consistent basis. NIU won all seven of its regular season games by one possession, utilizing the calm, collected nature of Lombardi to routinely win games in crunch time. With an experienced Lombardi running the ship, a team that failed to collect a single victory a season ago instantly learned how to pull a victory out of any situation.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Lombardi said. “It happens in the eight months preparing for next season. I think it happens with a little help from leadership. I think me and (running back) Clint Ratkovich did a good job of implementing some leadership and developing more leaders and shifting the culture of the program. From there, it was a lot of work. A lot of guys put in a lot of extra time. They really honed in and developed their skills. There were a lot of close games in that season and it just came down to confidence that we were gonna get it done and willpower — we really wanted to win. We didn’t want to experience that same feeling they had the year before going 0-6.”
The final challenge of 2021 involved knocking off a Kent State team which defeated the Huskies in a 52-47 offensive shootout during Lombardi and Rudolph’s historic night. While the quarterback and receiver didn’t replicate the same absurd stat-lines, a more important result was attained. This time, NIU blew past the Golden Flashes, 41-23, to secure its first MAC championship under Hammock and fifth since 2011.
“You can feel how bad the team wanted it and appreciated it after the game was over,” Lombardi said. “To see the coaching staff, the players, teammates, and friends — everybody so happy after that game was special for me. That was our expectation and to accomplish any goal is rewarding, but to accomplish a pretty large goal like that is pretty substantial. It was a great feeling so we’re hoping to get back and experience that one more time.”
Running it back for the crown of the MAC
Heading into 2023, Northern Illinois still trots out a handful of starters from that championship team, including all-MAC linemen Nolan Potter and Logan Zschernitz, as well as defensive tackle James Ester and safety CJ Brown. Gifted with a full slate of health this August, the Huskies understand what they’re capable of, even if last year’s record didn’t indicate such potential.
“Injuries are a part of the game and I’m not gonna say we went 3-9 because some of our top people were injured,” Rudolph said. “It’s always the mentality here of ‘next man up,’ but having our full team back when everyone’s 100 percent and can help out with our team, that’s gonna be the difference.”
If a MAC championship was the follow-up of an 0-6 season, who is to say it can’t be done on the heels of a 3-9 campaign? Headlined by the Lombardi and Rudolph combo, the Huskies are ready to dispose of last year’s frustrations and equip the trophy case in DeKalb with another MAC championship.
“It was really frustrating. Back-to-back conference championships are really hard,” Lombardi said. “In the MAC, there’s only been one team in the last 15 years that has done it. It’s a difficult test to defend your title. We looked forward to that challenge, but Trayvon and I didn’t get the chance to do that, but we’re looking forward to that opportunity now. I think we’ve got a good shot and we’ve got a great team.”