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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: NIU Huskies

Can the Huskies make it seven straight trips to Detroit?

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s safe to say last season didn’t quite end how the Northern Illinois Huskies wanted it to.

After a solid 8-3 start (which included knocking off the 24th-ranked Toledo Rockets and nearly beating the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes), the Huskies suffered some key injuries that plagued them the rest of the way. The season ended on a three game losing streak, culminating in the blowout loss to Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl, and left yet another sour taste in the Huskies’ mouth over the off-season.

Well, fall has finally made its way back around (almost) and the Huskies once again find themselves in a good spot to repeat as MAC West Champs...so long as they can get past the Western Michigan Broncos and Rockets.

Here’s a little preview of what to expect from the Huskies this season.

Five Players to Know:

#19 Kenny Golladay, WR, RS Senior: Golladay had a huge season for the Huskies last year. The 6’4 transfer from North Dakota hauled in 73 passes for 1129 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015, leading the Huskies in each of those categories (by a huge margin). He caught five or more passes in nine games last season and had nearly three times more receiving yards than any other Huskie (the next highest being just 398 yards). Look for him to be the go-to receiver yet again this year, as his height and play-making ability make him a serious threat.

#19 Shawun Lurry, CB, Junior: Yes, the defense ALSO has an amazing player that wears #19...Shawun Lurry. At 5’8 he might not be the tallest corner in the MAC but he sure has the skills to be a shut-down DB. Last season Lurry led the entire NCAA in interceptions (9) and interception return yards (273)...that’s over 30 yards per interception! His 15 pass break-ups were good enough for second best in college football and his stats led to Lurry becoming only the fourth Huskie ever to be named a First Team All-American by the FWAA. Watch for the ball-hawking corner to once again wreak havoc against MAC QBs.

#28 Joel Bouagnon, RB, Senior: What Golladay is to the aerial assault, Bouagnon is to ground attack. The 6’2, 228 pound runner is force in the backfield and was First Team All-MAC last season. He amassed 1285 rushing yards on almost 300 carries (283 to be exact) and found the endzone an amazing 18 times. Bouagnon also tallied 13 catches for 131 yards. Expect Bouagnon to get the majority of the carries again this season - especially in the red-zone, where his size and strength are much needed.

#23 Jordan Huff, RB, RS Junior: If one is good, then two is better...and that’s just what NIU has in their backfield. While Jordan Huff is a bit smaller (5’11, 218) he is also a bit faster and more elusive. He was able to score eight times and had an 87-yard scamper - the longest offensive play for the Huskies last year. While Huff only carried the ball 86 times, he made the most of every one; averaging 7.6 yards per carry and raking up 653 yards. He’s a great compliment to Bouagnon and NIU will need this kind of production again.

#12 Drew Hare, QB, RS Senior: Hare, who injured his Achilles tendon during the Toledo game last year, is slated to be back to full duty come September 3rd for NIU’s first game (at Wyoming). As a quarterback following in Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch’s footsteps, Hare has done really well. And, while he might not have the same numbers those two put up, he has been really efficient and really solid QB. Last season he played in nine games, completing just under 64% of his passes for 1962 yards and 14 TDs all while throwing just four interceptions. And, don’t forget, like his predecessors he can use his legs to escape too - rushing for 252 yards and a touchdown last year. Hare has had a lot of time to work on the mental side of the game, as well as the actual game, since last season and that should translate to big number this year.

Four Games Not to Miss:

September 17th vs. San Diego State Aztecs: The Aztecs were one of the best mid-major teams last season, winning their final 10 games, including crushing Cincinnati 42-7 in the Hawaii Bowl. They have a great running back (Donnel Pumphrey, who rushed for 1653 and 17 scores last season as a junior) and look like they could have just as good of a year in 2016. This is a battle between two of the best G5 teams, as both received votes in the Preseason Coaches Poll. ESPN has even added SDSU in their College Football Preview as the #25 team...so it won’t be an easy match up for the Huskies by any means.

October 8th at Western Michigan Broncos: This game is being played much earlier than usual. The sixth game for both teams could be an early decider of who goes to Detroit from the West. WMU has continued to climb their way towards the top of the MAC; landing huge recruits, playing well, and winning games...except those against NIU. The Broncos have lost seven straight to the Huskies and will look to end that streak at home this year. This is a huge early MAC game for both teams. And one that NIU needs to win.

October 15th vs. Central Michigan Chippewas: Just one week after the WMU game, the Huskies have another challenge. Unlike WMU and Toledo, CMU has actually found a way to beat the Huskies recently...in fact they’ve won the last two games against NIU. This season the Chippewas are as much of a contender in the West as NIU, Toledo, or WMU...so if the Huskies can’t find a way to knock of CMU here it could be a long season.

November 9th vs. Toledo Rockets: This Wednesday night MACtion-packed game will take place at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. And while many Toledo fans (and MAC fans) claim this isn’t a rivalry...it totally is. These two teams have been at top the MAC each year but the Rockets haven’t beaten NIU since 2009 and I know that has to sting them at least a little bit. This game is usually close and usually decides it all...you can’t miss it.

Three Ways the Season is a Success:

Beat Western Michigan. The first big challenge to repeating as MAC West Champs comes early in October. NIU needs to find a way to beat the Broncos on the road to continue their way to a seventh MACC Game. While a loss to the Broncos might not technically eliminate the Huskies from the race...it sure will have them playing catch-up and relying on some luck.

Beat Toledo. Like the game above, Toledo is another must win game if NIU wants to control its own destiny going forward. However, this one is on a bigger stage. The bright lights of national TV and a giving up home-field advantage for the “neutral” location in Chicago could mean a bit tougher of a game than NIU wants it to be.

Make it to Detroit...again. Last season the Huskies tied Marshall’s record of appearing in six straight MAC Championship games. This year the Huskies could break it. The Huskies have had a great stretch of teams and this one is no different. The Huskies, and their fans, are thinking it’s Detroit or bust.

Two Things to Watch Out For:

Predictable Play Calling. While the Huskies have continued to win these last few season, their offensive play calling has become quite stagnant and predictable in the past. With more options on at WR and two solid running backs, hopefully the Huskies can start to get out of their old plays in to some newer ones that defenses in the MAC haven’t see yet. In the past NIU has been a lot of close games against teams they should beat easily because of this.

Trap Games. The Huskies have done really well at avoiding trap games. But, the way the schedule is broken down this year, there are quite a few possible ones. Ball State and CMU sandwich the big showdown at Western Michigan. The Huskies will need to stay focused to win the Bronze Stalk and then keep that focus against both WMU and CMU (a team that seems to be NIU’s kryptonite). Later in the season Bowling Green is matched up with NIU right before the Toledo game...BGSU might not have the same team they did last year, but NIU still need to worry about the Falcons first before the Rockets.

One Bold Prediction:

The Huskies win the MAC West (again). I don’t know how bold that statement is since it has happened the last six years...but I’m going with it. Despite the improvements made by CMU, Toledo, and WMU, the Huskies are still the team to beat in the MAC. They have tons of depth at skill positions and return 16 starters from last year. If the injury bug stays away, there is no reason to bet against NIU returning to Detroit.