If the Northern Illinois Huskies have any chance at turning around their season, it starts here when they play host the Western Illinois Leathernecks this Saturday. It will be the 40th meeting between the two teams, the Huskies leading the series 21-17-1.
But it will not be a cakewalk. WIU is one of the best lower division teams this season, coming to DeKalb ranked 13th in the FCS polls after posting decisive victories over Eastern Illinois (the same team who beat Miami two weeks ago and is now ranked 16th in the FCS) and Northern Arizona.
The Leathernecks boast a very balanced attack, rushing for 441 yards and passing for 445 in their two games.
On the ground they are led by sophomore running back Steve McShane, who’s rushed for 362 yards and four touchdowns on just 52 carries, which is an average of seven yards per touch. He’s the only player on WIU to carry the ball more than 12 times and gain more than 60 yards on the ground.
Their aerial assault is captained by another sophomore: Sean McGuire. In his two games McGuire has been solid, completing just under 60% of his passes (35-59) for all 445 of WIU’s passing yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
His favorite target is 6’0 senior wide receiver Lance Lenoir, who has a third of the teams receptions. His 12 grabs have gone for 246 yards and a score. Lenoir is the only receiver with more than 70 yards and has twice as many catches as the second place receiver, Isaiah Lesure (who has six grabs, 64 yards, and a TD).
Defensively, Western is led by junior linebacker Brett Taylor. Taylor leads the team in tackles (with 23), tackles for loss (3), sacks (2), and has their only interception. He is a solid player that is all over the field.
NIU has struggled to get a ground game going with Joel Bouagnon and Jordan Huff this year, as the duo has only combined for 267 yards with no touchdowns in the first three games. Their struggles might continue this week as well because Western has played really well upfront. They’re allowing just 3.5 yards per carry and have only given up 283 total rushing yards.
So if the Huskies are going to move the ball it will have to be through the air.
In the secondary, Graham will have to watch out for sophomore Xavier Rowe. The six-foot DB is second on the team in tackles (21) and his height makes him a good coverage guy - as a freshman last year he led the team in pass breakups.
But as a team WIU has struggled against the pass. Opponents have completed over 72% of their passes against the Leathernecks for 666 yards and five touchdowns in their previous two contests.
For the Huskies, though, the order of the day has to be discipline. NIU is one of the most penalized team in the D-1 football. They’re averaging more than 86 penalty yards per game (t-116 in the FBS), and, in the MAC, only Akron has given up more.
The other key to NIU’s success has to be changing up the play calling. I’ve been saying this for a LONG time, and many other Huskies faithful have become more vocal about this as well, but the Huskies haven’t mixed up their plays at all...and defenses have taken notice.
Even though Hare is injured, NIU needs to find a way to spread the ball around through the air...and, with Western having a semi-porous secondary, this might be the game that the Huskies can find a rhythm throwing the ball. If the passing game is doing well, that will allow Huff and Bouagnon to move the ball better on the ground too.
But we’ll just have to see what Rod Carey dials up. Another loss here and that would almost certainly spell disaster for Carey, as fans have already began to call for his head.
You can catch the game this Saturday, September 24th, at 2:30 p.m. (CST) on ESPN3.