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The faces have changed, but Northern Illinois’s defensive identity hasn’t

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The Huskies want to stop the run, and they’re usually good at it.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Here are the yards per carry numbers for Northern Illinois’ defense over the last seven years: 3.5, 3.9, 4.2, 4.0, 4.6, 3.0, 2.7.

That last number is from 2018. This year, the Huskies are giving up 4.9 yards per carry, but that’s through three games with two of them coming against Utah and Nebraska; against Illinois State — obviously FCS competition, but probably closer to what they’ll face in the MAC — the Huskies’ defense allowed just 51 yards on 28 carries. Their defense has long been predicated on stuffing the run and forcing teams into passing downs. It sounds like a very basic concept, but it’s been highly effective over the years.

The problem with this approach against Power 5 opponents, though, is obvious: by the standards of the SEC, this defense is small. At one defensive end spot, Northern Illinois rotates 215-pound Jawon Denton with 225-pound Michael Kennedy; those are tiny defensive linemen compared to what you’d see in a power conference. The Huskies’ linebackers go 215, 225, and 220, and none of the three are taller than 6’0”. Starting cornerback Jalen McKie is 5’7” and 180 pounds (and also has the team’s lone interception this season.)

All of this, perhaps, explains how Nebraska ran for 7.2 yards per carry and scored 44 points against a team that normally suffocates the MAC. On the other hand, Utah, running more or less the same offense Vanderbilt ran last year (hi Andy), averaged 5.2 yards per carry and scored 35.

The danger, though, is that while these players are undersized, they’re experienced. LB Antonio Jones-Davis was a first team All-MAC selection in 2018; another LB, Kyle Pugh, was a second-team selection, as was safety Mykelti Williams. And through three games, the third linebacker (sophomore Jordan Cole) is tied with Jones-Davis for the team lead in tackles.

On the defensive line, though, the Huskies have had to replace last year’s MAC Defensive Player of the Year in Sutton Smith, as well as a two-time All-MAC selection in Josh Corcoran. They do return a third-team All-MAC lineman in Jack Heflin (that Northern Illinois had three defensive linemen selected to all-conference teams should tell you how good that unit was in 2018), but there are new faces on the line; perhaps that explains why Utah and Nebraska have had success running the football against them.

The defensive backfield isn’t a strength. Safeties Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster are experienced, but both of the starting corners are sophomores — and both are starting for the first time this season.