After it was announced on Friday that Daniel Santacaterina would be starting in place for the injured Ryan Graham, who struggled last week against Boston College, fans of the Northern Illinois Huskies were, as usual, cautiously optimistic.
So what did we learn from the Huskies 38-10 beat down of the Eastern Illinois Panthers yesterday? Well...a lot.
Santacaterina should remain the starter
In the season opener Graham struggled. Yes, it was against a very good defense. But a lot of his passes were errant and that led to him completing just 39.5% of his passes. Many of his throws were in the dirt or at the receivers legs.
Yesterday, we didn’t see that with Santacaterina, who finished 23-34 (67.5%) for 252 yards and three TDs. Instead we saw a young quarterback who could fling it on the run, complete the deep passes, and convert on third downs. NIU was 10-16 on third downs (including two passing TDs from Santacaterina) this week as opposed to 2-15 last Friday. The offense just seemed to work a lot better with him in control.
Penalties could become an issue
Last week the Huskies were flagged eight times for 70 yards. This week it was much worse. NIU gave up more than two full field lengths of penalties, getting called for 15 penalties totally 201 yards! That’s a lot of free yards. The defense was able to overcome those against an FCS opponent but next week NIU heads to Nebraska and the following game is at San Diego State. If the Huskies continue to give up that kind of free yardage, they will find themselves in a hole they can’t dig out of. They need to be more disciplined moving forward.
NIU will need to continue the balance on offense
NIU has always been a run-first team. And this year, Jordan Huff and Marcus Jones have done well as the Huskies are averaging 4.95 yards per rush attempt. But through two games the offense has been pretty balanced (401 rushing yards, 472 passing yards).
The drives that worked best for NIU so far have been those that use the pass to set up the run. When Graham was throwing on target passes last week, it opened up more holes for the running backs, this week was no different. The Huskies should look to throw more on first down to create more space on second and third for the HBs and to keep the defenses off balance.
The defense looks much improved
Most fans weren’t sure how the front seven for NIU’s defense was going to be. There were three new starters on the D-Line and a lot of unproven linebackers. Well, they have lived up to, and exceeded, expectations.
Lineman Sutton Smith was a beast in both games. Linebacker Kyle Pugh has had a couple of huge games as well. In both games, the Huskies have eliminated the rushing attack, allowing a combined 208 yards on the ground and holding opponents to just 2.31 yards per carry! And have had 18 total tackles for a loss. That forces teams to pass into what most consider to be the strength of the NIU defense, their secondary.
Special teams are once again iffy
Kick and punt returns have been mediocre, with the Huskies averaging 19.3 yards per kick return and just 3 yards per punt return. But the real issue has been field goals.
While Hagan has made all of his extra points, he has had three field goals blocked already. The potential game-tying kick last week was tipped at the line and hit the crossbar. Then EIU was able to get a hand on a couple of field goal attempts and kept NIU off the board twice this week. Hagan needs to get more air under his kicks or the blocking needs to get better...or both.
Three blocks in two weeks is cause for concern. But that’s nothing new for Rod Carey’s teams. I keep having flash backs to 2010 and Michael Cklamovski’s kicking (he missed 10 field goals and six extra points that year).
But, overall, this has been a positive start to the season for NIU, who could very easily have been 2-0. The defense is playing well, the offense seems to be clicking with Santacaterina running the show, and we have a huge game against coming up next week.
Next Saturday we’ll see just how good Santacaterina and this Huskie defense are as they head to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers. If the defense and offense can continue to play like they have...it just might be a closer game than most people think.