College football roundup: Nothing says NIU is back like a visit to Boneyard

Nothing restores faith in the state of Illinois college football quite like a "Boneyard" victory by Northern Illinois.

Saturday's overtime win at Boston College felt like a replay of 2021, when the Huskies opened with a victory at Georgia Tech and went on to win the MAC title. NIU calls beating a Power 5 team a Boneyard victory, if you were wondering, and this was No. 18 in program history.

NIU seemed to be in control most of the way, leading 14-0 and 21-7, but had to survive an apparent game-clinching interception overturned by replay and an insane scramble by Boston College QB Thomas Castellanos to convert a fourth-and-five. That play began at the BC 46-yard line and Castellanos ran in circles a few times, going all the way back to his own 12-yard line at one point.

The Eagles tied the game with 1:44 left and kicked a field goal to start overtime. Then in true Thomas Hammock fashion, the biggest play of the game was a short pass to fullback Brock Lampe, who turned the corner for a 16-yard gain to the nine. NIU scored the winning touchdown two plays later.

"I thought our physicality in the trenches would hold up and it did today," coach Hammock said. "We didn't kill them offensively, but we were able to move the ball."

It helped to have seventh-year QB Rocky Lombardi back behind center. Yes, he's in his seventh season of college football, having arrived at Michigan State in 2017. The Des Moines native missed most of last season with an injury.

"I got a little emotional after the game," Lombardi said. "There was a time where I didn't know if I'd be able to come back and play ever again. I love this game, it means a lot to me. To be able to be back out there and get a win on top of it, there was a lot of emotion."

Lombardi finished with 165 passing yards, scored the winning TD on a 1-yard sneak and had an astute observation about what it took to beat another Power 5 team on the road.

"I think it is a little bit of a skill to know how to close out a game." he said. "Emotions are high and tensions are high, everybody's going every which way. But if you can zone it in for that last little bit and figure out a way to win the way, I think it's definitely a skill that's developed."

There were also some solid starts by Illinois' FCS teams. Most notable was Eastern Illinois, which had gone 5-35 the past four seasons, beating Indiana State 27-0. SIU rolled over Austin Peay 49-23, while Illinois State beat Dayton 41-0.

Sad loss in New Jersey:

Expectations are obviously low at Northwestern after a troubling offseason and Sunday's opener at Rutgers was no fun at all.

The final score (24-7) wasn't so bad, but the story was Rutgers starting the game with two long, slow scoring drives of 16 plays each. When the Scarlet Knights took a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, they led the time of possession 15:08 to 1:26.

The defense couldn't get off the field, QB Ben Bryant was under heavy pressure and the Wildcats managed just 12 rushing yards.

NU scored its lone touchdown with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter with backup QB Brendan Sullivan in the game, but interim coach David Braun said Monday Bryant - the Cincinnati transfer from Lyons Township High School - will start again Saturday against UTEP.

In the meantime, Braun is trying to keep the faith.

"We have plenty of talent," he said Monday. "We have a team that can win a bunch of football games this year. Momentum's a powerful thing, it's time to get the momentum going in the right direction and then let that thing roll downhill."

Don't worry about Illini yet:

Illinois' narrow victory over Toledo shouldn't be cause for alarm. Outside of the defensive line, the Illini lost most of the key players from last year's surprise squad. Coach Bret Bielema is probably looking at a rebuild, reload or reset this season.

Skipping steps:

There was an interesting game played in Arlington Heights on Saturday. Roosevelt, which is planning to jump from NAIA to Division 2 in 2024, took on defending D3 national champ North Central at the old Forest View Stadium.

Roosevelt is leapfrogging Division 3, but the result of this game was predictable, a 41-7 North Central victory that was 34-0 at halftime. Anyone familiar with the two-time D3 champs knows the drill. The Cardinals generally have one competitive regular season game per year (against Wheaton) and cruise into the playoffs.

QB Luke Lehnen, All-America WR DeAngelo Hardy and several other returning starters are back for North Central. In this week's D3 poll, North Central is No. 1, Wisconsin-Whitewater No. 8, Wheaton No. 13 and Aurora No. 20.

Best local performance: Daniel Sobkowicz (Rolling Meadows) led Illinois State with 6 receptions for 90 yards and a TD.

Results-driven Top 5: 1. Florida State, 2. Duke, 3. Colorado, 4. North Carolina, 5. LSU. The ACC is killing it this year.

Intriguing game of the week: Some might say Texas-Alabama, but the answer is Texas State at UTSA. The coaching staff of FCS offensive juggernaut Incarnate Word moved up to Texas State and opened with a win at Baylor. This might be a top 5 Group of Five matchup.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Northern Illinois long snapper Isaac Hatfield (91) and defensive tackle Devonte O'Malley (8) celebrate with teammates and fans after defeating Boston College in overtime on Saturday in Boston. Associated Press
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