Season preview: Northern Illinois Huskies
LARAMIE -- The national media isn't high on the Huskies.
It doesn't take a ton of research to figure out why either.
This isn't the Northern Illinois squad that played in the Orange Bowl a little more than eight years ago. Or the one that claimed a MAC Championship in 2018. And who could forget the last time Wyoming and NIU met on a football field.
Josh Allen dove into the end zone in the wee hours of Sunday morning, capping a rain-soaked 40-34 victory in triple overtime back in 2016.
Like the Cowboys, Northern Illinois played just six games in a virus-shortened 2020 campaign. Unlike UW, the Huskies failed to get in the win column.
Giving up an average of nearly 39 points per outing certainly didn't help. That ranked NIU 119th in the nation out of 127 teams who actually played through the pandemic. Rushing the ball for just 127 yards per outing didn't do the Huskies any favors either.
Those things will happen when you field one of the youngest teams in the nation.
NIU has just five seniors listed on its two-deep.
Let's take a look at the matchup:
Who: Wyoming at Northern Illinois
When: Sept. 11, 2021 at 11:30 a.m. MST
Where: Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Illinois
Series: Wyoming leads 1-0
Last meeting: Wyoming won 40-34 3OT in 2016 in Laramie
NIU's returning starters: Offense (7), Defense (10), Special Teams (4)
UW's returning starters: Offense (10), Defense (11), Special Teams (4)
What to watch for when the Huskies are on offense:
Northern Illinois is pinning its offensive hopes on Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi, who threw for 1,090 yards and eight touchdowns during his final season in East Lansing.
So far, so good.
"The quarterback gives us a chance to operate the offense the way we want to operate it," NIU head coach Thomas Hammock said after last Saturday's 120-play scrimmage in DeKalb. "He gets us in the right checks, gets us in the right calls, he's an extension of the coaching staff."
Ross Bowers, a former Cal transfer, tossed 10 touchdown passes last fall to go along with 1,365 yards through the air. He once again entered the transfer portal after the season.
Throwing the ball wasn't an issue for NIU in 2020, third-down completions were. The Huskies were only successful on 26 of 91 attempts. That ranked 120th in the country.
We mentioned the Huskies' rushing woes above, but that's to be expected with a freshman running back and a front five that includes two sophomores, a pair of freshmen and a lone senior. Harrison Waylee returns to the NIU backfield after rushing for 456 yards on 107 attempts. That's just 4.3 yards per carry.
The Huskies top two receivers, Tyrice Richie and Trayvon Rudolph, are back in the mix this fall. Richie, a 6-foot, 193-pound senior from Chicago, snagged 53 balls for 597 yards and four scores to lead the team. Rudolph caught 14 passes for 232 yards. Cole Tucker hauled in a pair of touchdown catches and racked up 136 receiving yards.
NIU will have to replace tight end Daniel Crawford. He finished with 21 grabs for 183 yards and a touchdown in 2020. The Huskies did sign Miles Joiner, a transfer from Youngstown State, in the offseason.
Can Lombardi be the missing piece for this young offense in 2021? He'll get his first crack in Week 1 when the Huskies travel to Atlanta to take on Georgia Tech. The stage shouldn't be too big for him. Lombardi did lead the Spartans to an improbable 27-24 upset win inside Michigan's Big House last October.
By the way, the Huskies visit Ann Arbor in Week 3.
What to watch for when the Huskies are on defense:
Sure, this group got six important games under its collective belt last fall, but youth -- and confidence -- could still be a concern in 2021 after this unit gave up 232 points in those few outings.
A quick glance at the depth chart shows that the Huskies will once again feature freshmen at six of eight spots along the defensive front. The linebacking corps also boasts a trio of freshmen. So does the secondary.
Like with Wyoming's front four in 2020, any experience is valuable. Unlike the Cowboys, who finished with 17 sacks, the Huskies got to the quarterback just 11 times in the same amount of games. UW featured one of the best rushing defenses in the nation, allowing just 125 yards per outing. NIU gave up 174.
Hammock doesn't seem too concerned about his guys in the trenches.
"They might be one of the youngest, but they're one of the most talented groups on our team," Hammock told NIUHuskies.com Monday. "You have guys all across the line that have played a lot of football. Don't look at the years in school because they're insignificant due to COVID. We have guys that have played and started multiple games."
It's probably not a great sign when a sophomore cornerback is your top tackler though. That's exactly what Jordan Gandy was last fall, registering 41 stops and picking off one pass. Freshman safety Devin Lafayette wasn't far behind, recording 36 stops to go along with a sack and an interception.
NIU did snag five interceptions in six games, led by defensive tackle James Ester, who grabbed two. The Huskies added a pair of fumble recoveries, too.
Led by a pair of active linebackers -- Daveren Rayner and Lance Deveaux Jr. -- NIU ranked No. 9 in the nation in getting off the field on third down.
An inexperienced secondary led by Dillon Thomas and Gandy allowed 245 yards per game through the air a season ago. That is good enough for 80th in the country.
Huskies' special teams:
Here's the real strength of this team.
And it starts with Rudolph, a Freshman All-American kick returner.
Not only is Rudolph a threat in the Huskies' passing game, he was second in the nation last fall with 725 kick return yards. That's an average of 23.9 yards per return. His 160 all-purpose yards per outing ranks him in the Top 10 in the country, too.
"It's still important for us that Trayvon is a difference-maker in special teams," Hammock told the team's official website. "You can change games in special teams. Those are opportunities for explosive plays, and instead of 40-yard plays, make them touchdowns. He is here to be a dynamic wide receiver, and we have to find creative ways to find speed and space. He's a special player and we have to let him make plays when he has the opportunity."
Matt Ference is one of the MAC's top punters, averaging 42.2 yards per boot in 2020. The senior is the school's all-time leader in punting yards with 10,994 and a career average of 41.5. It's no surprise he is on the Ray Guy Award watch list this season.
Sophomore John Richardson nailed 7-of-9 field goal attempts in 2020 and was perfect on point-after attempts.
How much did the Huskies grow and improve after a forgettable 0-6 campaign in 2020?
That is one of the biggest question marks facing this program, which has won just five of its last 13 games.
If the defensive front makes giant leaps, this team could be sneaky good at the line of scrimmage. If not, expect more of the same -- limited quarterback pressure, holes in the interior.
Is Lombardi the answer under center?
In 16 outings in a Spartans uniform, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior completed just under 44% of his passes while tossing just 11 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions. NIU averaged 24.8 points per game last fall. That was 10th out of 12 teams in the MAC.
Can NIU score and stop somebody?
We'll all find out in 18 days in Atlanta.
Northern Illinois 2021 schedule:
Sept. 4 @ Georgia Tech
Sept. 11 vs. Wyoming
Sept. 18 @ Michigan
Sept. 25 vs. Maine
Oct. 2 vs. Eastern Michigan
Oct. 9 at Toldeo
Oct. 16 vs. Bowling Green
Oct. 23 @ Central Michigan
Nov. 3 @ Kent State
Nov. 10 vs. Ball State
Nov. 17 @ Buffalo
No. 23 vs. Western Michigan
- Just the facts: Wyoming's 21 Mountain West conference titles and counting