Opponent: The Northern Illinois Huskies
Date and Time: 9/28, Nashville, Time and TV coverage are TBD (but this has all the makings of an 11:00AM SEC Network tilt)
All-time Series Record: 3-0
Last Meeting: 1999, 34-31 in Nashville
Last year: 8-6 (6-2); Won MAC
Head Coach: Thomas Hammock, 1st year HC
The Huskies like to fashion themselves as a Rust Belt, “nobody believes in us” type program with a punishing ground game. Maybe nobody really does believe in them- for good reason. While they have four MAC titles since 2011, they also haven’t won a bowl game since then. Nonetheless, they play a tough type of football and provide some great Tuesday night entertainment during the Fall.
This game will be a good palate cleanser for Vanderbilt after playing two punishing SEC games in the first three weeks.
NIU was a historically bad program until Joe Novak turned them around after his third year, in 1998. He slowly built the program, winning four MAC West Division titles. Jerry Kill led NIU from 08-10. Dave Doeren took over after Kill until 2012.
Rod Carey led the Huskies until last year, with the highlight of the program playing in the Orange Bowl following the 2012 season and having QB Jordan Lynch invited to the 2013 Heisman Trophy presentation.
Carey jumped to Temple after Manny Diaz left the Owls for Miami. NIU was left scrambling and hired the former NIU assistant under Kill and Baltimore Ravens assistant, Thomas Hammock.
Along with Hammock, the Huskies have a new OC in Eric Eidsness. Traditionally, NIU has been a ground attack team that utilizers multiple TEs in their passing game. Last year, they were 121st in Scoring and 124 in Total Offense, and still won the MAC. Under Eidsness, their offense could change form. The QB position was open in the Spring and Summer despite the two year returning starter Marcus Childers. Ross Bowers, former Cal QB is a graduate transfer and will give NIU more of a passing dynamic if he wins the job.
They will continue to produce on the ground, though. They return their top three RB’s, Tre Harbison Jr (who was 2nd Team All MAC), Marcus Jones, Jordan Nettles, and Erin Collins, a graduate transfer from NCSt. Last year, their rushing offense ranked 70th in the NCAA last year with 166.9 yards per game. Of six returning starters on offense, three are offensive linemen. This bodes well for experience in the trenches and in the power aspects of their offense.
On defense, the Huskies are returning seven starters, including four of their front seven- three LB’s and one DL. They lost their two time consensus All American DE Sutton Smith to the NFL. Last year, they gave up 22.6 points per game, which was good enough for 34th in the country and only 109.2 yards per game on the ground, 11th nationally. However, they struggled in the passing game yielding 247.8 ypg- 95th nationally. Yikes. It’s hard to tell if the Huskies exploit MACtion market inefficiencies by using a ground game attack vs the MAC’s air-it-out reputation, or if their rushing game and defense is really just that good.
Hammock is an experienced coach, but a first time HC. The beginning of the season will undoubtedly have wrinkles to iron out. The offense will look different than previous NIU iterations. If they keep the ball on the ground, and control the clock, they can wear out defenses. They don’t have the fire power in the air to play from behind. Despite having a very good linebacking core, they don’t have the talent to get to the passer or the DBs to compete with elite pass catchers.
This is the kind of match up that Vanderbilt will thrive in. It could be ugly for a quarter as both teams break in new QB’s and look to establish the run. But once the ‘Dores get the ball in the air, it’s unlikely that the NIU defense will be able to defend Lipscomb or Pinkney.