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How Big of a Loss Would Rocky Lombardi be For Northern Illinois?

The Huskies offense may change without the super senior under center

Northern Illinois may enter Kroger Field on Saturday night without its starting quarterback able to play against the Wildcats. 

Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi has done a bang-up job since going under center for NIU. Unfortunately for the Huskies, the fifth-year senior now finds himself banged up, with a top-10 SEC opponent looming. 

Lombardi went down with an undisclosed leg injury in the second quarter of last week's game against Vanderbilt and did not return. NIU head coach Thomas Hammock provided an update on the status of his QB on Tuesday, though it didn't give any hints as to whether or not the Clive, IA native would be taking the field on Saturday night: 

"We got better news than what we anticipated," Hammock said. "We feel good about where he's at and his progress that he's going to be able to make. We've got the rest of the week to figure that out."

If not Lombardi, it'll be Ethan Hampton at QB for the Huskies. The freshman kept the ship steady after coming in the game, completing 12 passes for 124 yards, tossing two touchdowns and an interception against the Commodores. NIU even took a 28-14 lead with Hampton under center, though Vandy eventually came back and won 38-28. 

When asked if it makes any difference who NIU plays at quarterback, Kentucky defensive coordinator Brad White was blunt: 


While the Wildcats gameplan will remain the same whether it's Lombardi or Hampton slinging the football, is White just in dismissing the need for potentially altering the scheme? If so, just how big of a loss is Lombardi to the Huskies' offense if he can't play? 

The almighty quarterback rating suggests it would be quite the loss. Lombardi currently ranks 29th in QBR with a 76.8 mark, which is better than multiple SEC quarterbacks, including Will Levis (53.3.)

What makes Lombardi so good at QB for the Huskies is his versatility. If the pocket breaks down or an assignment is missed, much like Levis, the super senior can make some magic happen when he rolls out. He's averaging 8.8 yards-per-attempt, a juicy number for a team who passes the ball just under half the time. 

Before his injury, Lombardi was a perfect 7-7 to start his day against Vanderbilt. On the season, he's thrown for 530 yards on a 65 percent completion rate, five touchdowns and one interception. With question marks surrounding almost every other area of the field for NIU, having consistency at QB was one of, if not the only thing keeping it afloat. 

Hampton did a serviceable job in less than three quarters of work, but that playmaking spark disappears when the ball isn't in Lombardi's hands. Having an entire week to prepare for having Hampton as the starter may change how NIU goes about its offensive scheme. 

The Huskies ran the ball 46 times per game last season, but through three games this year, haven't ran it more than 37 times in one night. Coach Hammock is a former running backs coach, most recently for four years with the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL, so he could go back to his roots in Lexington, pounding the rock and hoping for the best. 

Kentucky has been good, but not great against the run, allowing 101.7 yards-per-game on the ground. The Cats do possess an elite passing defense, having not allowed a score through the air this season, so Hammock may not want Hampton to air it out too much. If the ground game isn't working, however, the Huskies may have to roll the dice. 

This, of course, is assuming that Lombardi won't be able to play on Saturday night. Will Brad White roll out an entire different look on defense if the primary starter is playing instead of the backup? Probably not, but it's worth noting that Lombardi can hurt a defense in more ways than one, and flat out gives NIU a better shot at pulling off the upset. 

NIU football's Twitter released a practice video on Wednesday, showcasing the Huskies in practice as they prepare to make the trip down south to Lexington. The video featured Hampton, not Lombardi, a potential omen for what's to transpire this weekend. 

All will be revealed on Saturday under the lights in Lexington. Kickoff between the No. 8 Wildcats and Huskies is set for 7 p.m. EST. The game will air on ESPN2. 

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