NIU's Hammock stands behind late-game gamble vs. Tulsa
This was the type of decision that would have been discussed on SportsCenter if it happened in, say, Austin, Texas, on Saturday.
Northern Illinois was playing Tulsa on ESPN+ and still delivered some first-class entertainment.
After rallying from a 24-7 halftime deficit, the Huskies had the ball and a 35-31 lead. They faced a fourth-and-4 at the Tulsa 48-yard line with 1:58 on the clock.
What do you do? Punt and try to pin Tulsa deep in its own territory? Huskies coach Thomas Hammock decided to give his offense a chance to clinch the game, and it didn't work.
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi threw a rollout pass to backup tight end George Gumbs. The play was open, but the pass didn't connect. Gumbs couldn't hang on, Tulsa took over and drove 52 yards in five plays to take the lead. With one last chance, a Lombardi pass was tipped and intercepted, clinching Tulsa's 38-35 victory.
Hammock expressed no regrets in his postgame news conference.
"We had an opportunity to win the game on offense on fourth down," he said. "I told my staff this morning, 'If we've got a chance to go win this game on offense, we're going to do that.' We just didn't make the play."
NIU is basically playing to win the MAC title and get to the best bowl game it can. So one way to look at it is putting it on the players' shoulders to clinch the win will help in the long run. When it doesn't work, it's easy to say punting was the better move.
"I love the call, love the aggressiveness," Hammock said. "We had a chance to go win the game. If you get that first down, the game is over. I'm going to give those guys an opportunity to go win the game. We just didn't execute that play."
The NIU defense responded well for the next two plays, getting an incomplete pass and sack. But on third-and-14, Tulsa completed a 24-yard pass over the middle, then 31 yards to the 1-yard line on the next two plays.
"You can't expect to win a game when you put up 7 points in the first half," Lombardi said. "It was a little sprint out play. It's designed for man coverage, to get the arrow route open. Cole (Tucker) set a great pick, we got George open there and missed him."
An earlier gamble worked well. Trailing 24-7, the Huskies took the second half kickoff and marched 75 yards for a touchdown. Then they successfully executed an onside kick and scored again.
"We became a little more aggressive. We had to be, we were down 17," Lombardi said. "Then once you start getting in a rhythm, once you start getting rolling, plays just start to happen."
Lombardi finished the night with 259 passing yards, 3 passing touchdowns and 1 rushing TD. His first two touchdown passes went to wide receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz, an Illinois State transfer from Hersey High School.
NIU had a tough night with penalties, getting flagged nine times for 84 yards.
"We have to be cleaner," Hammock said. "We have to be able to not hit a guy out of bounds, not get hands in the face, things that hurt you on defense."
Next up for the Huskies are two straight SEC opponents. They'll host Vanderbilt in DeKalb next Saturday at 2:30, then visit No. 9 Kentucky.