I’ll be the first to admit I wanted Coach Thomas Hammock to do well as the leader of the Northern Illinois Huskies. And if you look back, you’ll see that I have defended him for years.
I looked past the 5-7 record back in 2019 (that was basically Carey’s team after all). I forgave the winless 2020 COVID season (we played 85 percent underclassmen and it was a new system even before the unprecedented circumstances.)
The 2021 season was a success— but every game was close and the ball just seemed to bounce NIU’s way, whether it be missed field goals, fumbles, or flukes. Last season, it was easy enough to chalk the poor play up to injuries due to the sheer number of them, but the red flags were starting to show, as the Huskies weren’t as deep as I thought they were at skill positions.
Even despite all that, I never lost hope that 2023 would be our year.
The star duo of quarterback Rocky Lombardi and wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph were both returning, along with nearly all of the previous year’s defense, which had shown great promise despite the record.
But despite all that, the Huskies are now in danger of missing a bowl game, a development further complicated by their loss to a 2-7 Ball State squad on Tuesday night. This season, there are no major injuries to point to. No departures in the offseason you can blame. No unprecedented circumstances to cloud the outlook.
There are no more excuses. And I have no more hope for this team.
The players have been undisciplined, under-prepared, and the team has struggled with teams that it should have no problem beating. One or two losses in winnable games over the course of a few years is understandable and easily forgivable. But at this point, we’re way beyond a few losses.
The Huskies have struggled nearly every week. And while the defense has kept it close most of the time, they eventually get tired and opponents put up big numbers in the third quarter, or earlier, as CMU did last week.
If you take out the Akron game, NIU has scored a combined 54 points in the first half in those nine games. That’s an average of six points in the first half. They even got shut out in the first half by Southern Illinois, an FCS team, and have scored a total of 34 points in the first quarter all season. That’s unacceptable for a team with a seventh-year quarterback leading the offense.
Sure, they have had better performances in the fourth quarter, but they’re usually down so much it doesn’t matter. And that is assuming they can even complete those comebacks; NIU has blown fourth-quarter leads three times this season, including in their upset of Boston College, where they gave up 14 points in the final six minutes.
Watching a team with this much talent give game after game away is ridiculous.
They shouldn’t have lost the Bronze Stalk this week. They shouldn’t have been down 24-3 at the half last week against CMU. They shouldn’t have given up 10 points in the fourth to lose to Tulsa, or gone for two that early against Toledo which kept the game out of reach, and they absolutely never should have trailed SIU. But that’s just this year.
They shouldn’t have been close with Eastern Illinois last year. They shouldn’t have blown a big lead to Vanderbilt at home last season. They shouldn’t have given up 10 straight against Ball State last year in the fourth, only to lose in OT. They shouldn’t have gotten blown out by Akron.
The amount of “shouldn’t haves” just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and it points to a much larger problem than bad bounces or bad luck. It might be time to admit it’s bad coaching.
This team has so much talent, but it can not—and has not— been able to play a full 60-minute game. The players are not properly prepared, nor are they progressing as much as they should be.
Northern was supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country, but they have struggled to open up any running lanes in 2023, needing six weeks to get the rushing yard per game average to over 100. They’ve also struggled to protect Lombardi in pass pro, leading to 25 sacks and multiple safeties over the past two seasons.
Lombardi himself has almost regressed over the past two seasons. After that great year in 2021, his accuracy and ability to hold on to the football have been suspect. It took him six weeks to have more touchdown passes than interceptions this season. Lombardi has also fumbled the ball at least five times this season, leading to a safety, a touchdown, a field goal, and a missed field goal.
And when Lombardi does throw the ball, the NIU receivers continue to drop passes left and right. I counted over ten dropped passes between last week and this week alone. These are things that coaches should be correcting and eliminating, not getting worse as the season goes on.
Even despite all these flaws, NIU fans know Lombardi is still the best option at quarterback, a further indictment of coaching. Justin Lynch has been redshirted and moved to halfback, while Ethan Hampton and Nevan Cremascoli haven’t shown any ability to move the ball either.
After Rod Carey, I wanted Hammock to come in and be the guy. Carey slowly killed NIU and I hoped that Hammock’s new culture and better recruiting would fix the Huskies and bring them back to the level we saw a decade ago.
I thought players like Lombardi, Rudolph, Antario Brown, Devin Lafayette, Devonte O’Malley and JamesEster would be enough to get NIU back to the MAC Championship. I thought three years would progress Hampton and Billy Dozier and countless others to make NIU a real contender. NIU should absolutely be contenders and better in the MAC. But the team itself has shown very little progress over the past four years.
Too many times, NIU has not played smart football. Too many times have NIU has (literally and figuratively) fumbled games away. Too many times have lesser opponents held NIU in check.
I wanted Hammock to succeed. I still do. But watching this NIU team play the last five seasons has me longing for the days of Rod Carey, where at least we were competitive in the MAC and making bowl games.
Just the thought alone is alarming; no one should ever want Carey back.
It is time for athletic director Sean Frazier to look at the state of NIU football and see if it is heading in the right direction. Because from my perspective— and the perspective of the broader fanbase— it’s pedaling backwards.
And enough is enough.