The Opponent: The Northern Illinois Huskies.
Date: September 17, 2022
Where: DeKalb, Illinois
Last year: 9-5 (6-2 MAC.) Northern Illinois is the reigning MAC champion. Uh, why did we schedule this game?
Series record: Vanderbilt has won all four meetings. By a total of 20 points, but still.
The last time we saw these guys: September 28, 2019. Low key this was the beginning of the end for the Derek Mason era, with Vanderbilt winning 24-18 in Nashville, against what was then a pretty bad Northern Illinois team — the Huskies would go 5-7 that year. I remember this mostly for (a) NIU covering a seven-point spread because of a two-point conversion that Vanderbilt didn’t really bother defending and (b) the post-game reVealed, back when we had a communications staff, showing the team appearing to be completely disinterested after its first win of the season. Vanderbilt would then go out a week later and endure a 31-6 drubbing at Ole Miss, then lost by 24 points to UNLV at home. So yeah, the 2019 football season: good times!
After his first two seasons at his alma mater, Thomas Hammock looked like he wasn’t long for this business: the Huskies went 5-7 in his first year, then went 0-6 in the abbreviated MAC-only 2020 season. And then they won the MAC in his third year. That said, it might have been one of the luckiest 9-5 seasons ever; the Huskies were actually outscored on the season, and while a considerable amount of blame for that goes to a 63-10 loss at Playoff team Michigan, the Huskies beat Georgia Tech by one, Eastern Michigan by seven, Toledo by two, Bowling Green by eight, Central Michigan by one, Ball State by one, and Buffalo by six. Six MAC wins by a total of 25 points. Yeah, this might have been smoke and mirrors. Still....
The offense should be fine. More than fine, really. Starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi, who began his career at Michigan State, returns after throwing for 2597 yards in 2021, and he has his top two receivers back as well in Trayvon Rudolph (51 catches, 892 yards, 7 TD) and Cole Tucker (41 catches, 575 yards, 3 TD.) The Huskies’ run-heavy offense does lose its leading rusher in Jeyvon Ducker, but they appear to have a couple of capable replacements waiting in the wings in last year’s part-timers, Harrison Waylee (101 carries, 574 yards, 4 TD) and Antario Brown (81 carries, 538 yards, 5 TD.) And they’ll be helped in the run game by the return of four of five starters on the offensive line — everyone but the starting center. This is all from an offense that averaged 32.2 points per game last season.
The good news: the defense returns a lot! The bad news: the defense wasn’t very good! Northern Illinois allowed an average of 33.7 ppg last year, good for 112th in FBS. The former might give Northern Illinois some hope for improvement on that side of the ball; the latter suggests that they probably still won’t be good. Last year’s defense was a rough combination of getting blown up at the line (the Huskies allowed 5.8 yards per carry on the ground) and not creating much havoc, like at all (defensive lineman Devonte O’Malley had four sacks, and this led the team, and the Huskies’ defense generated a grand total of ten takeaways all season.) One thing I kind of wanted to see early on in the 2022 season is a test for the offense and instead, the offense will face two iffy defenses in a row (Wake and NIU) before entering SEC play. I mean, it’s a problem if the offense can’t score points on these two, I guess.
Vanderbilt opens the season with a pair of games that should be wins (Hawaii and Elon) and a third game that will probably be a loss (Wake Forest.) On paper, I think Vanderbilt should have a shot at winning this game; last year’s team probably wouldn’t have done it, but a Vanderbilt team that’s improved over the offseason can go into DeKalb and get a win. If that happens, you can reasonably have hope to win an SEC game this season. A team that goes up to Northern Illinois and gets beaten is probably headed for an 0-8 SEC finish. It’s weird to think of a game at a MAC opponent as a barometer, but, well, that’s where the Vanderbilt program is right now.