NIU needs to keep MAC-leading Kent State offense from inflicting damage

  • Northern Illinois quarterback Rocky Lombardi holds teammates accountable, one of his best traits, coach Thomas Hammock said.

    Northern Illinois quarterback Rocky Lombardi holds teammates accountable, one of his best traits, coach Thomas Hammock said. Associated Press

By Eddie Carifio
Shaw Media
Updated 11/2/2021 12:05 PM

In a battle of first-place teams, the Northern Illinois Huskies visit Kent State Wednesday to start the midweek Mid-American Conference schedule. Kickoff is 6 p.m. on ESPN2.

NIU (6-2, 4-0) is atop the MAC West while the Flashes (4-4, 3-1) are tied with Miami in the East Division.


Scouting Kent State

The Flashes rack up a lot of yards with Dustin Crum under center -- he's fourth in the MAC with 1,770 passing yards and has thrown nine touchdowns and two interceptions. Marquez Cooper, Xavier Williams and Crum have each run for at least 368 yards, with Cooper leading the way with 558 yards, sixth in the MAC.

Fourth-year coach Sean Lewis has a connection to NIU head coach Thomas Hammock. Lewis played at Wisconsin when Hammock was a graduate assistant there.

"He was one of the first people who greeted me at Wisconsin," Lewis said. "He's built this team to play with great effort, with great attitude. They fight like crazy."

Hammock said Lewis' maturity level at a young age was appreciated.

"One thing I respect about Sean is he was a young man who was a quarterback in high school, came to Wisconsin as a quarterback, and he came early. By the time we got done with spring ball he realized he wasn't a quarterback. It takes a lot for a young person to realize that and we moved him to tight end."

Three things to watch

Flash is not just a name but the pace of play

Kent State has six touchdown drives that have taken 90 seconds or less. The Flashes have 13 scoring drives of less than two minutes.

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"I feel it's definitely going to be a stressor," NIU rover Dillon Thomas said. "It's a different experience from what we've seen this season."

The Flashes are coming off a 34-27 win at Ohio and have scored at least 27 points in each MAC game.

"They do a tremendous job putting stress on you with their offense, lining up quickly and running plays," Hammock said. "They're not like most no-huddle teams where they run a zone scheme. These guys have a plethora of runs they can go to."

Huskies on fourth down

The Huskies beat Central Michigan 39-38 Oct. 23 behind a late field goal from Kanon Woodill. NIU was 4 for 5 on fourth down and made two 2-point conversions.

The Huskies are ninth in the country having converted 75% of their fourth-down attempts.

"The mindset is we've got to have it," tight end Miles Joiner said of fourth-down situations. "The coaches have a great play-call sheet to put us in position to execute it."


Lombardi's leadership

NIU hasn't exactly been a pass-happy team, but against a Central Michigan team stout against the run, quarterback Rocky Lombardi had his best game. He completed 17 of 27 passes for 348 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. In four MAC games, he has been intercepted once.

When he was only attempting eight passes a game -- the Huskies barely needed to throw in a win over Bowling Green -- Lombardi is vocal.

"He holds guys accountable," Hammock said. "He's not afraid to not be liked. In this day and age, with young people, everybody wants to be liked. It's a lot more important to be respected. He holds them to standards. And one thing he doesn't do is tell you to do something he wouldn't do himself. That's a big thing."

The breakdown

Kent State leads the MAC in total offense, averaging 450.5 yards per game and is fourth in scoring offense.

The Huskies are ninth in total defense (419.5) and 10th in scoring defense (31.5).

The Flashes allow an average of 204 yards rushing per game, while the Huskies lead the MAC -- and are 12th in the nation -- with 232.8 yards per game on the ground.

A key could be keeping Kent State off the field, and the Huskies are 10th nationally in time of possession.

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