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2019 Week 5 MAC Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies at Vanderbilt Commodores

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It’s about to get Nash-ty! The Huskies head to Nashville as they end non-conference play against Vanderbilt.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

After a bye-week last weekend, the Northern Illinois Huskies will head to Nashville, Tennessee to play in their final non-conference game. They’ll meet the Vanderbilt Commodores, an SEC opponent that is looking to end a three game losing streak.

The biggest news of the week, though, is that the Huskies have once again lost starting linebacker Kyle Pugh for the season, this time with an apparent shoulder injury. The senior had nine tackles and three TFL in the first two games but sat last game against Nebraska before being ruled out for the season by Coach Hammock on Tuesday. The linebacking corp is getting real thin for the Huskies, as they are now down Pugh and Lance Deveaux Jr.


Game Info:

When: Saturday, September 28th at 11 a.m. (CST)
Where: Vanderbilt Stadium - Nashville, TN (40,350 capacity)
Watch: SEC Network
Weather: Sunny and mid 80’s at kickoff, with a high around 95
Odds: Vanderbilt is favored by 6.5 points and has a 75.9% chance to win according to ESPN’s FPI


Series History

NIU has matched up against Vanderbilt more times than any other SEC opponent. This will be the fourth meeting between the two schools, with Vanderbilt claiming a 3-0 record so far.

However, even though the Commodores are undefeated against the Huskies, every game has been a close contest, with the largest margin of victory being just 10 points.

The teams first faced off in 1994 and Vandy escaped with a 17-16 win over the Huskies. Three years later, in 1997, the Commodores would claim a 17-7 victory over a Huskie team that went 0-11 and was in the midst of a 23 game losing streak. Vanderbilt was the only team NIU held to under 20 points that season, as most teams had no issues with the Huskies, who gave up 35+ points in eight of their 11 games that year.

The Huskies last meeting with the Commodores was just over 20 years ago, as the teams met on September 11th, 1999. Vanderbilt would erase a 25-point third quarter deficit and needed a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown with 1:41 left in the game to escape with a 34-31 win. NIU Head Coach Thomas Hammock saw action as a halfback in the game as well.

This will be NIU’s first game against an SEC opponent in five years and twelfth overall. A third of NIU’s games against the SEC have come against Vandy and they’ve now played the Commodores twice as many times as any other SEC school.

The Huskies are 1-10 against the SEC, with their lone win coming in 2003...a 19-16 win over the 19th-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide.

Vanderbilt will be playing in their 13th game against a MAC foe and, in their first dozen games, have posted a 10-2 record - losing only to WMU in 1998 and Miami in 2000. However, they have won their last seven games against the conference (but their last three games were against UMass in 2012, 13, and 14).


The Commodores

Quick Facts:
Record: 0-3 (0-2 SEC)
Last Week: 66-38 loss to #4 LSU Tigers
Coach: Derek Mason (6th season, all at Vandy), 24-41 overall

Vanderbilt has a familiar face at quarterback, as former Ball State QB Riley Neal helms the Commodore offense. Neal was 0-3 against the Huskies as a Cardinal and NIU would like to keep him winless.

In Music City, Neal has connected on 58.2% of his passes (53/91) for 669 yards and three touchdowns while tossing two interceptions. Vandy has also used Deuce Wallace at points during the season. Wallace hasn’t fared much better, going 13/27 (48.1%) for 89 yards and having an interception.

The main targets through the air have been wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney, with halfback Ke’Shawn Vaughn making an impact in the passing game as well. Lipscomb leads all Commodores with 16 catches, 174 yards, and one score. Pinkney is tied for second with nine grabs and has 119 yards. Receiver Chris Pierce is a big play threat as he has just four catches but is second on the team with 149 yards (an average of 37.2 yards per catch).

When he’s not catching the ball, Vaughn is also tough runner. The Huskies should expect a heavy dose of Vaughn in the game as he’s had 52 carries for 260 yards and three TDs on the ground and added nine catches and 67 yards through the air.

Defensively the Commodores are allowing 46 points per game but have played two teams in the top-5 - the #3 Georgia Bulldogs and the #4 LSU Tigers - and a tough Purdue Boilermakers team. Like the Huskies, they have struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and have only netted two sacks...although they do have seven QB Hurries.

Safeties Dashaun Jerkins and Brendon Harris have both had a solid starts as redshirt freshman. Jerkins leads the team with 25 tackles (15 solo) and has a pass break up and a fumble recovery. Harris is second on the team with 15 tackles and has added a TFL as well.

Dimitri Moore and Kenny Hebert have been all over the field as linebackers. Moore is third on the team with 14 tackles while Hebert has added 13 tackles, three TFL, a sack, and a pass break up.

Up front, they bring the heat with Dayo Odeyingbo who has nine tackles, three of which have been behind the line.


The Huskies

Quick Facts:
Record: 1-2
Last Week: BYE
Coach: Thomas Hammock (1st season) 1-2 overall

NIU will look to beat their first FBS opponent of 2019 this week and will once again turn to Ross Bowers at quarterback to do so. He has been very effective at times (when he’s had time to throw) and has completed 61.3% of his passes for 776 yards while throwing three TDs but ineffective on others, tossing three interceptions and having been sacked ten times.

Bowers has split his targets between two wide outs and two tight ends. Tyrice Richie and Spencer Tears have been the standout receivers, with Richie having 11 catches for 175 yards and two TDs and Tears netting 141 yards and a score on his nine grabs.

Tight ends Daniel Crawford and Mitch Brinkman have combined for 21 receptions and nearly 300 yards. Crawford leads the team with 195 yards on 11 receptions while Mitch Brinkman has snagged ten passes for 92 yards.

The Huskies haven’t gotten much of a ground game going, as Tre Harbison has only netted 162 yards on 41 carries while backup Jordan Nettles has 21 attempts for 82 yards. NIU has yet to break the 100-yard mark rushing in any game this season.

The big men up front have not been kind to Bowers or the running backs, giving up ten sacks and 21 TFLs in the first three games. NIU will need better blocking up front if they want to get out of Nashville with a 2-2 record.

On defense, the loss of Pugh really hurts the Huskies. Their once strong starting LB crew is now down to just Antonio Jones-Davis. However, he has had help from sophomore Jordan Cole. The two lead the team with nearly identical stats. Each has 16 tackles and 2.5 TFL with Cole added a safety, while ADJ has also blocked a kick and broken up a pass.

The secondary will need safeties Marshe Terry and Mykelti Williams to step up and stop Riley Neal. The duo has 25 combined tackles, with Williams forcing a fumble and Terry recovering two fumbles and adding .5 TFL.

Up front Jack Heflin, Weston Kramer, and Quintin Wynne need to find a way to get some added pressure on the Commodores quarterbacks and half backs. NIU has only managed one sack so far this year but they have generated 20 TFL and six QB Hurries.


Prediction

Back in July one of my bold predictions from my season preview was that I thought the Huskies could pull off the upset here or at Utah and would start off 2-2. Well, the Utah game didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to but there’s still a chance this one could.

Vandy’s defensive struggles might just be due to an incredibly difficult schedule up front but that might have exposed some holes for the Huskies to exploit. But it looks like the NIU passing attack could find some holes and yardage against this secondary.

The running game needs to improve if the Huskies are going to have any semblance of balance on offense and keep the Commodores on their toes.

As for the Huskie defense versus Riley Neal, we’ve certainly had his number before. Yes, the Vanderbilt receivers and line are much better than those in Muncie...but Neal is more of a game manager than anything and, if NIU can find a way to get pressure on him, he’ll struggle some and make mistakes.

It’s all going to come down to the lines for the Huskies. If the O-Line can keep Bowers upright, and give him time, the Huskies offense should be able to move the ball. And, conversely, if the D-Line can find ways to get stops in the backfield and pressure Neal, they should be able to get enough stops to keep NIU in the game.

This should be a close game and, as I always am when NIU plays P5 competition, I am cautiously optimistic about this one as well.

I still think NIU can start 2-2 and that Bowers and Co. will do just enough to end their skid against Vandy. I’m saying my bold prediction comes true and it’s the Huskies that escape with a close win this time...

NIU - 28
Vanderbilt - 24