The Northern Illinois Huskies were able to hold off the Eastern Michigan Eagles on Saturday evening after a rain delay between the first and second quarters suspended the game for nearly three hours. With the win, NIU moves to 3-2 on the season and 1-0 in the MAC while the Eagles drop to 3-2 and start conference play 0-1.
Here’s what we learned about both teams in their MAC openers.
Kenneth’s Take on EMU
Northern Illinois jumped out to a 17 point lead and never really looked back. Eastern Michigan would make the game 17 to 3 in the waning seconds of the first half but it was hard to overcome spotting the other team 17 points.
It’s even harder to overcome a deficit when you only gain a net 38 yards on the ground. Northern Illinois would get 7 tackles for loss for a total of 49 yards. Five of those were sacks. Eastern Michigan’s DJ Smith would get 26 yards on the ground and Darius Boone had 10 attempts for 22 yards but was stopped behind the line for a net of 19 yards. At any rate, a team needs a ground game to win (for the most part).
Despite giving up an early 17 points, Eastern Michigan never really quit. Even when Northern Illinois would get an early in the second half 14 point lead, Eastern Michigan put together a nice drive to cut that deficit in half, making it 24-17. I would have to say that Creighton’s unflappableness (if that’s a word) has rubbed off on his team. But still, getting down by three scores early, doesn’t help things.
Stopping the run helps in winning games as well. Northern Illinois had a net gain of 242 yards on the ground. With Antario Brown getting 101 of those yards. Fortunately, Northern Illinois only had 84 yards in the air but it sounds like they were running at will, so didn’t really need to pass as much. As I’ve said before, Eastern Michigan against the run this year has been troubling. Hopefully Neathery will be able to stop that.
I’m still not going to rule out Eastern Michigan as a dark horse for the MAC, but losing to a division rival makes that a little harder.
Dave’s Take on NIU
Not going to lie...I really liked what I saw from NIU in the first half and there were even a few bright spots in the second half as well.
After struggling on defense for most of the season, the Huskies really came out fired up in this one. In the first sixteen minutes of play they had three sacks, forced a fumble, and had a 59-yard pick six. A big departure from what we saw against Wyoming or Michigan.
NIU finished the day with five sacks, the most in a single game since Sutton Smith & Co. recorded six sacks against WMU back in November of 2018.
Up front, the run defense also killed it. The Eagles didn’t get into positive yardage on the ground until late in the third quarter and finished the game with a paltry 38 yards on 24 rushes (1.6 yards/run).
That being said, the secondary still looks very weak and EMU was actually able to out-gain the Huskies by 50 yards. The porous secondary allowed Ben Bryant to get the Eagles back into the game, as he threw for 338 yards (compared to NIU’s mere 84 passing yards) and had two touchdowns.
The Huskies continue to run past their competition (literally) as they had 55 attempts rushing the ball to just 19 passing attempts. On those 55 carries, they amassed a whopping 242 yards and had three different players with 10+ carries.
Harrison Waylee, NIU’s workhorse on the ground, left the game in the second quarter with an injury after but had a very solid first half where he netted 87 yards on 13 carries. His replacement, Antario Brown, showed he, too, was up to the challenge. In the second half alone Brown rushed for 101 yards on 16 carries and averaged 6.3 yards/carry. Clint Ratkovich led the team with 19 attempts and gained 49 yards and had a touchdown.
NIU, who has also struggled with penalties this season, played better/smarter football and were flagged just twice the entire game. The Eagles, however, were called for seven fouls which helped NIU gain 56 free yards.
The only two things that have continued to worry me are how ineffective NIU’s passing game has been and how many yards their secondary gives up.
If a team is able to stop NIU on the ground, the Huskies will have a real hard time moving the chains...or scoring!
On defense, if the Huskies can keep getting pressure in the backfield/stop the run AND get the secondary to play a little better...this could be a very dangerous team the rest of the season.