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2017 Football Season in Review: Northern Illinois Huskies

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A look back at the Huskies in 2017 and a first look at what to expect in 2018

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Duke vs Northern Illinois Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies bounced back from a 5-7 record in 2016 by finishing 8-5 and reaching the Quick Lane Bowl. But, unfortunately, it was another bowl loss for NIU - their fifth straight.

How’d they get there though?


The Season...

2017 Schedule

Date Opponent Score
Date Opponent Score
9/1 Boston College 20-23
9/9 Eastern Illinois 38-10
9/16 @ Nebraska 21-17
9/30 @ San Diego State 28-34
10/7 Kent State 24-3
10/14 @ Buffalo 14-13
10/21 @ Bowling Green 48-17
10/26 Eastern Michigan 30-27 (OT)
11/2 @ Toledo 17-27
11/9 Ball State 63-17
11/15 Western Michigan 35-31
11/24 @ Central Michigan 24-31
12/26 Duke 14-36

The season started with a close loss to Boston College, a game that was very much winnable for the Huskies, but the biggest highlight of the season has to be the Week 3 victory over Nebraska. NIU’s defense scored two defensive touchdowns and intercepted three passes on their way to a 21-17 victory at Nebraska.

After another close loss, this time to San Diego State, the Huskies reeled off four straight MAC wins, including a 14-point comeback and overtime win against Eastern Michigan, before Toledo got the best of the NIU to claim the top spot in the MAC West.

NIU would then handily beat Ball State and escape Western Michigan to climb to an 8-3 record as they entered the final week against CMU. The Huskies jumped on CMU early, taking a 17-0 lead into halftime before the Chips would mount a comeback. Shane Morris then found Corey Willis for a 29-yard touchdown with just over 90 seconds to go to give CMU the 31-24 victory.

The Huskies, at 8-4, still found a way to get to Detroit though...although this time it was for the Quick Lane Bowl against the Duke Blue Devils.

After a slow start, and despite one of the most questionable calls of all time...

NIU managed to tie the game at 14 before Duke shut out the Huskies the rest of the way en route to a 36-14 win.


Who’s Leaving...

The Huskies are losing 19 seniors this season as well as sophomore QB Daniel Santacaterina, who has said he is leaving the team.

Biggest Losses:
Mycial Allen, S
Chad Beebe, WR
Christian Blake, WR
Jordan Huff, RB
Shawun Lurry, CB
Shane Wimann, TE

That’s a lot of offensive and defensive firepower to leave the NIU roster in the upcoming season. Lurry, an All-American selection, will especially be missed in the defensive backfield for the Huskies, while Beebe, Huff and Wimann were senior leaders on an otherwise young offense.

The 2018 Huskies will certainly have their work cut out for them in the coming year with a lot of its best players leaving in the off-season, but there’s a good amount of optimism in the air as well, considering who returns.


Who’s Returning...

On defense, the Huskies will return Consensus All-American Sutton Smith, who will be a junior.

Smith, who is only the second Huskie to ever earn the Consensus All-American title, finished the season with 14 sacks and 29.5 tackles for a loss - both of which led the NCAA - as well as netting 63 total tackles, eight QB Hurries, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and had two defensive touchdowns.

Also returning are linebackers Jawuan Johnson (who led NIU with five interceptions and was second on the team with 98 tackles and 18 TFL) and Kyle Pugh.

The secondary will be without Lurry, Allen, Jackson Abresch, and Mayomi Olootu Jr. but will still have Jalen Embry , Albert Smalls, and Mykelti Williams among others.

On offense NIU’s starting quarterback, Marcus Childers, will only be a sophomore. Childers was a solid QB who finished the year with 1674 yards, a 57.4% completion percentage, and 16 passing TDs to just five interceptions. He also added 473 yards and five more touchdowns on the ground.

The entire Huskie offensive line will be back along with running backs Marcus Jones, Tommy Mister, and Tre Harbison. And receivers Spencer Tears, Jauan Wesley, and D.J. Brown should return as well.

So, while they lose some of their stars, the Huskies have a lot of returning talent and should be able to grow and improve over the off-season.


2018 Outlook...

Non-Conference Games (2017 record):
@ Iowa (8-5, 4-5 B1G)
Utah (7-6, 3-6 PAC-12)
@ Florida State (7-6, 3-5 ACC)
@ BYU (4-9, Independent)

MAC Games:
Home: CMU, Miami, Ohio, Toledo
Away: Akron, Ball State, EMU, WMU

The Huskies have a tough non-conference slate next season, but they also have a lot of depth returning. An All-American, a trio of linebackers, a quarterback that should be much improved, a slew of running backs, and the whole offensive line will be back in 2018, and if there’s one thing we know, it’s that NIU tends to play Power 5 teams tough, especially on the road.

One concern which might worry NIU fans a bit is that the offensive play-calling has gotten decidedly worse since the departure of Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch.

Since Rod Carey took over as head coach the NIU offense has gotten worse each season - 39.6 points per game (2013, with Lynch), to 31.5 (2014), to 31.1 (2015), to 30.5 (2016), and then finally, this year, NIU managed just 28.9 points per game.

The defense, who had three pick-sixes and two fumbles returned for scores, actually had more than 10 percent of NIU’s touchdowns this season, accounting for five of NIU’s 48 total touchdowns.

So, it’s safe to say that, even though the Huskies have a lot of talent returning on the offensive side of the ball, the offense still might not manage a ton of points next season.

However, the defense has gotten a lot better this season and should hopefully grow next year as well. The secondary will need some work but the front four and linebackers, should they stay healthy, will be a force to reckon with in the MAC.


Way, Way Too Early Predictions

Childers’ deep passes are more accurate but the offense still struggles to get points as opposing defenses figure out how to stop the four plays NIU uses on offense (and has used since 2014). Running the ball is harder to do since teams will start creeping up, knowing NIU doesn’t have a strong passing attack.

The defense should once again emerge as one of the best in the country. Smith may not quite the same effect as last season, since teams will be targeting him all year, but that allows for other D-Linemen to rush the QB and get some sacks/TFLs. Pugh and Johnson lead the team in tackles.

NIU will definitely struggle early, and at least on paper, it looks like a 1-3 start to the season, with the likeliest win being vs. BYU. MAC play, as per usual, will likely be the deciding factor for NIU’s bowl eligibility, especially if they can finally get over the Toledo/CMU hump (it helps that the Huskies they draw both at home next season).

A 7-5 finish with a guaranteed bowl record is probably a decent prognostication for the 2017 season. How they’ll finish in the postseason will likely determine the fate of one Rod Carey, as NIU has been outscored 140-44, out-gained in total yards 1624-757, and lost by an average score of 47-15 in their last three bowl games.

NIU Twitter has been extremely consistent on wanting Carey gone and, with his contract coming up relatively soon, maybe AD Sean Frazier finally listens to them.

But alas, only time will tell on that one.