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A Rocky remake: QB Lombardi thriving after needed fresh start at Northern Illinois

Lombardi isn’t a superstar with gaudy stats, but he’s a football grinder from a family of them who has found an ideal fit with the Huskies.

2021 MAC Championship - Kent State v Northern Illinois
Lombardi after scoring a touchdown in the MAC championship game.
Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Let’s just say not all of quarterback Rocky Lombardi’s performances over three seasons at Michigan State were knockouts. Hey, it happens.

But give the guy credit for getting onto the field in 22 games — nine of them starts — with the Spartans. Sometimes he was really good, like when he lit up rival Michigan for 323 yards and three touchdowns in a Halloween upset in 2020. Sometimes he was not-so-good, like one week later when he threw three picks in a 42-point loss to Iowa. Nobody’s perfect, not even the now-23-year-old with arguably the greatest sports name on the planet.

“I feel like sometimes at Michigan State, I took football too seriously,” he said. “It was like going to work every day, and it was my own [fault].”

So what did he do about it? Like a champ, he picked himself up off the canvas — having been literally knocked out on his final Spartans snap, against Ohio State — and decided to seek a change for the better. Northern Illinois, anyone? That’s where Lombardi transferred to play his final two seasons.

“It’s been really good for my mental health,” he said.

And like a certain iconic football coach, he embraced that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Except this Lombardi leaves out the second part. Winning is important to him, but how he leads his new team, how he loves the game and how much fun he has playing it each matters more.

And how’s that going for him? Suffice it to say, the Huskies — winless without Lombardi in 2020 — are 9-4 and in Orlando, Florida, preparing to face Coastal Carolina on Friday in the Cure Bowl.

“It’s a blessing,” said Lombardi. “I’ve been very fortunate to find a home like this.”

Meanwhile, the truth is all this stuff about his name is silly. He’s neither related to Vince Lombardi nor named for Rocky Balboa. His father, Tony, was a running back who rooted for the Steelers’ Rocky Bleier. Tony played at Arizona State after attending Rich East, where his coach was Bob Lombardi — Rocky’s grandfather — who also coached at the University of Chicago. Beau, Rocky’s little brother, is a lineman at Army.

NIU’s QB isn’t a superstar with gaudy stats; he’s a football grinder from a family of them who has found an ideal team fit. Lombardi and the Huskies are double-digit underdogs against Coastal Carolina. The 10-2 Chanticleers are led by Grayson McCall, who ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency, is part of the Heisman Trophy chatter for 2022 and is on a path to the NFL.

“Of course,” Lombardi said, “being the underdog means there’s no pressure.”

No pressure, and sometimes no respect. After Illinois beat Northwestern 47-14 in the season finale for those sub-.500 teams, the Illini’s football Twitter account posted, “This is our state.” Lombardi quote-tweeted the post with a line from the movie “Talladega Nights”:

“Will all due respect, and remember I’m saying with all due respect, that idea ain’t worth a velvet painting of a whale and a dolphin getting it on.”

Funny, right?

But seriously: Whose state is it?

“I’d like to think it’s the Huskies’,” Lombardi said. “We have a young team and we’re improving every week. We’ve proven we could hang with some bigger schools and beat some bigger schools. If we played [Illinois or Northwestern], it would be an interesting matchup. I think we’d be OK.”

At the very least, they’d have a puncher’s chance.

JUST SAYIN’

If Lombardi is Rocky, does that make McCall Apollo Creed, “Clubber” Lang or Ivan Drago?

And is there any chance the 21-year-old would have a clue what we were talking about if we asked him that question?

• Coastal 34, NIU 20. I’d love to pick the Huskies, but the Chanticleers are outstanding.

In a related development, my research department has uncovered, after an exhaustive deep-dive into the facts, that a chanticleer is a rooster. Look, google it for yourselves if you don’t believe me.

• My latest college basketball AP Top 25 ballot: 1. Baylor, 2. Purdue, 3. Duke, 4. Arizona, 5. Kansas, 6. Alabama, 7. Gonzaga, 8. UCLA, 9. Iowa State, 10. Kentucky, 11. Houston, 12. USC, 13. Auburn, 14. Xavier, 15. Colorado State, 16. Seton Hall, 17. Michigan State, 18. Oklahoma, 19. Villanova, 20. Texas, 21. Arkansas, 22. Ohio State, 23. Wisconsin, 24. Texas Tech, 25. LSU.

• It looks like Porter Moser and Oklahoma are ready for the school’s coming jump from the Big 12 to the SEC. Already this season, the surprising Sooners have upset then-No. 14 Florida and then-No. 10 Arkansas. It was an 88-66 rout of the Razorbacks on Saturday, with five Sooners scoring in double figures and Moser’s team in full control at both ends. Sound familiar?

• The Bulls’ messed-up roster vs. the Bears’ messed-up playbook:

Discuss.

US-ENTERTAINMENT-TED LASSO
Where’s the mustache, Coach?
Photo by VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

• OK, hear me out: Maybe the Bears can hire a soccer coach from England who knows nothing about American football but is trying to give his wife some space, comes with a lovable assistant coach, bakes daily treats for his boss and … never mind, it’s a ridiculous premise.