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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 8 Game Preview: NIU Huskies at CMU Chippewas

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CMU has been the Huskies’ kryptonite for the past decade...will that trend continue in 2021?

Central Michigan v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Central Michigan Chippewas welcome the Northern Illinois Huskies (5-2, 3-0 MAC) into Kelly/Shorts Stadium this Saturday afternoon.

Central Michigan (4-3, 2-1 MAC) is coming off a pair of close wins, scoring a late touchdown to survive Ohio and then needing overtime (and a missed Rocket field goal attempt) to avoid losing to Toledo.

After Kent State fell to WMU last weekend, Northern Illinois became the lone undefeated team in the MAC. The Huskies enter the game 3-0 in conference play, with three one-score wins over EMU, Toledo, and Bowling Green. But their final five games will really show if NIU is back, as they face five of the toughest teams in the conference...starting here with CMU.


Game Info

When: Saturday, October 23rd at 12 p.m. (11 a.m. CST)
Where: Kelly/Shorts Stadium — Mount Pleasant, MI
Watch: ESPNU
Weather: Sunny but chilly, with a high in the low 50s
Odds: CMU is favored by 5 points and has a 58.5% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI



The Huskies

NIU has been the surprise team in the MAC this year. Their stats haven’t been great and they’ve been out-gained in all but two games...but every week a new player breaks out and they just keep finding a way to win.

They enter this week averaging 28.4 points and 376.9 yards per game on offense, with their ground game carrying the bulk of the offense. The Huskies, with that run-heavy offense, are tied for 10th in the country in time of possession.

NIU is also one of just two FBS teams that have FIVE players with 200+ rushing yards on the season (with the Florida Gators being the other team) and their 239.9 rushing yards per game ranks 11th in the NCAA.

Head Coach Thomas Hammock hasn’t given any official updates on injuries but it looks like Harrison Waylee will miss his third straight game but Antario Brown, who went down in the first quarter last week, should be back. However, if Brown remains out, the Huskies have Jay Ducker ready to go. Ducker cruised for 210 yards on 33 carries last week for NIU and was the first Huskie to run for more than 200 yards in a single game since Jordan Lynch did it in 2013.

Another bright spot in the Huskie backfield was Mason Blakemore, who sliced his was for 44 yard and a touchdown on his four carries last week.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi has thrown for under 100 yards in two of the last three games and, last week, he only attempted eight passes. In fact, on the year he’s only netting 139 passing yards per game and now sits at 973 yards with six TDs and six INTs on 83/146 passing (56.8%). He has been using his legs very effectively lately though, as he leads NIU in rushing TDs (5) and is second on the team in rushing yards (319).

With thier limited passing attempts, receiving yards have been hard to come by for NIU. Tyrice Richie is by far the most targest WR, catching 32 passes for 333 yards, but has yet to score this year. Trayvon Rudolph was able to bump his stats last week as he had a 20-yard TD grab late in the third quarter and scorched the Falcons defense on a 100-yard kickoff return right before the half. He now has 170 yards and two TDs on twelve catches.

Defensively, the Huskies are giving up 408 yards and 30.6 points per game but have tallied 11 sacks, 26 QB hurries, and broken up 24 passes. NIU has been a “bend don’t break” team...they’re ranked seventh in the NCAA on 4th down defense, allowing opponents to convert on fourth down just 26.7% of the time (4/15).

Three linebackers have led the way for Northern - Nick Rattin, Lance Deveaux Jr., and Dillon Thomas (a converted defensive back). Rattin is second on the team with 42 tackles and leads the Huskies with five QBH. Deveaux Jr.’s 39 stops is good for fourth place and he has also added four TFL, a sack, and forced a fumble. Thomas has been a beast since MAC play started and now has 35 tackles and leads the team in sacks (3) and TFLs (5).

Jordan Gandy has been great in the secondary; he’s broken up a team-leading eight passes and has 32 tackles, three TFL, and recovered a fumble.


The Chippewas

With the exception of their win over Robert Morris and their loss to LSU, every game CMU has played has been with ten points. Their offense is averaging 27.7 points and 441.7 yards per game, which is second best in the MAC (behind Kent State).

The Chips’ 284.7 passing yards per game tops the conference and ranks 23rd in the NCAA. After beginning the year with Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon at quarterback, CMU has since transitioned to Daniel Richardson for the past two games after Sirmon struggled.

Since taking over the starting job two weeks ago, Richardson has led the Chips to two big MAC wins and has really settled into the roll. He now has 1192 yards and eleven touchdowns to go with his 57% completion rate on the season. Possibly the biggest upside to Richardson is, despite having a similar number of passing attempts to Sirmon, Richardson has only thrown two picks (both against Ohio; Sirmon has thrown four INT) and he’s only been sacked six times (Sirmon was sacked 18 times!)

The Chippewas triple threat when it comes to receiving are wide outs Dallas Dixon, Kalil Pimpleton, and JaCorey Sullivan. Dixon leads the team in receptions (34), yards (532), and is tied for first in touchdowns with six. Sullivan is the other CMU player with six receiving TDs and has 366 yards on 24 grabs this season. Pimpleton has been a staple in the passing game for CMU since 2019. This season he has 446 yards and a score on 32 receptions and last week he amassed over 1600 yards for his career, with 1617 yards and nine touchdowns on 140 grabs overall.

On the ground, Lew Nichols III has been the feature back. The freshman leads the MAC with 723 yards (12th most in the NCAA) and has rushed for 130+ yards in each of the last two games. He’s been a beast lately, running the ball 30 times against Ohio for 186 yards and then had 132 yards on 29 carries last week.

Central’s defense is giving up just under 27 points per game and opponents are gaining 390.1 yards, mostly through the air, as the Chips’ defense is holding teams to just 131.1 yards per game on the ground.

Up front, defensive linemen Troy Hairston II and Thomas Incoom have gotten lots of pressure. Hairston II has totaled 23 tackles, leads the team in TFL (8) and sacks (4.5), and has added two QBH. Incoom has 6.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks to go along with his team-leading five QBH and 18 tackles.

CMU secondary is led by Gage Kreski and Devonni Reed. Kreski topping the team with 47 tackles (31 solo) and has also added 4.5 TFL and snagged one of the three interceptions the CMU defense has forced. Reed is tied for the team lead in pass break ups (5) and is second with 36 tackles (23 solo) but has also recorded 2.5 TFL, a sack, an interception, and blocked a kick.


Prediction

This should be another close game that will most likely come down to who has the ball last (which fans of both schools are used to by now this season).

NIU has struggled against CMU the past fourteen years, going just 4-10 against the Chips since 2007, and has dropped the last two games in ugly fashion - losing 40-10 last year and 48-0 in 2019. But this certainly feels like a different Huskie team.

Richardson should be able to move the ball effectively against the Huskie secondary and Nichols III will look to have a third-straight 100-yard game on the ground.

However, the Chippewas will need their stout rush defense to hold Brown, Ducker, and Ratkovich (and possibly even Blakemore) as NIU will look to churn the ball and take down the clock.

In their three MAC games, NIU has controlled the ball and really limited their opponent’s time of possession. The Huskies held the ball for 35:47 against EMU, had possession for more than 2/3s of the Toledo game (40:47 to just 19:13 for the Rockets), and last week held BG to just 25:19 (to their 34:41).

Should the Huskies control the clock and keep CMU off the field, a 4-0 MAC start is likely. If CMU’s defense is able to stop NIU’s beasts in the backfield and make Lombardi throw the ball, the Chips will likely win.

To me, the Huskies just have so much depth in the backfield that I think they are sneak away with the win.

NIU - 27
CMU - 24