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2021 MAC Football Week 1 Game Preview: NIU Huskies at Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets

The Huskies open their season against an ACC foe, Georgia Tech, down in Atlanta.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 18 NIU at Ball State Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies are hopeful that 2021 will be better than last year in DeKalb. The 2020 campaign was a season to forget for NIU, as the Huskies lost all six games and suffered their first winless season since 1997 (when they went 0-11). The six game losing streak is also the Huskies’ longest losing streak since they dropped seven in a row back in 2015/16 (losing the last three games of 2015 and the first four games of 2016).

The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets started 2020 off with a bang, beating Florida State in the season opener. But it quickly turned on them, as the team had two games cancelled to Covid, lost five of their last six games, and finished the season with a 3-7 record.


Game Info

When: Saturday, September 4th at 7:30 p.m (6:30 p.m. CST)
Where: Bobby Dodd Stadium Stadium — Atlanta, GA
Watch: ACC Network
Weather: Mid 80’s and partially cloudy
Odds: GT is favored by 17.5 points and has a 83.8% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI


These two teams have never met before. In fact, this will be the first time the Huskie football program plays a school from the state of Georgia AND the first time Georgia Tech plays a school from the state of Illinois.


The Huskies

Quick Facts:
2020 Record: 0-6
Head Coach: Thomas Hammock (3rd season, 5-13)
Offense: Multiple
Defense: 4-3

By now we all know the Huskies have one of the youngest rosters in all of college football. With 88 freshmen listed, the Huskies will be looking to a slew of young talent to rebuild the program. NIU has just 18 upperclassmen on their roster: seven seniors and eleven juniors.

One of those eleven juniors is primed to help the Huskies offense get back on track - Rocky Lombardi.

Lombardi will take over as the Huskies’ quarterback this season after transferring from Michigan State last year. As a Spartan, Lombardi played in 22 games (starting nine) and threw for 1902 yards and had eleven touchdowns and 14 interceptions in his three seasons. Last year he completed 53.5% of his passes and led MSU to wins over Michigan and Northwestern.

His main targets this season will be Tyrice Richie and Trayvon Rudolph. Richie, now a senior, averaged nine catches and 99.5 yards per game last season. If he keeps up that pace this year, he’ll finish his career as the 7th leading receiver all-time at NIU. Rudolph had a breakout season last year as a true freshman and he gets to keeps his freshman status this year as well. Rudolph was second on the team with 232 yards and averaged 16.6 yards per grab, the best of any Huskie.

On the ground, NIU will look to Harrison Waylee to move the chains. Waylee, another freshman, averaged 4.3 yards per carry last year on his way to 456 yards and a touchdown.

Senior transfer Clint Ratkovich will also look to make an impact this season. Ratkovich, at 6-1, 220 pounds, comes in as a hybrid RB/FB that can catch as well as run. At WIU he had 97 carries for 429 yards and three TDs but also had 128 receptions, 1204 receiving yards, and ten receiving touchdowns.

Defensively, a pair of super-super senior linebackers - Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux Jr. - will led the team. Pugh, in his seventh and final season at NIU, has been unstoppable...when healthy. In 34 games he has totaled 186 tackles, 12.5 TFL, three sacks, recovered three fumbles, and has an interception. Deveaux Jr., who has also struggled with injuries, is in his sixth and final season in DeKalb. He broke out in 2018 when he had 67 tackles before redshirting in 2019 and missing 2020 with an injury.

Freshmen safeties Devin Lafayette and Jordan Hansen lead the secondary and had three of the five Huskie interceptions last season and combined for 59 tackles and 2.5 sacks. But cornerbacks Jordan Gandy and Dillon Thomas showed last year that they could play as well. Gandy led the team in tackles (41) and pass break ups (7) and had an interception while Thomas had a pick and three pass break ups.


The Yellow Jackets

Quick Facts:
2020 Record: 3-7
Head Coach: Geoff Collins (3rd season, 6-16)
Offense: Pro-style spread
Defense: 4-2-5

The Yellow Jackets roster, like the Huskies, is chalked full of underclassmen. Of the 126 players listed on their roster, 77 are freshmen (61%), 23 are sophomore, 14 are juniors, and there are only a dozen seniors on the roster.

Jeff Sims returns as the Yellow Jacket’s starting quarterback. The freshman played in all ten games last year where he completed 54.9% of his passes, threw for 1881 yards, and tossed 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. However, he also can make plays with his legs. Sims averaged 4.1 yards per carry and led the Jackets in rushing attempts (120), rushing yards (492), and rushing touchdowns (6).

The Yellow Jackets used a committee in the backfield last season and had four half backs rush for 200+ yards, all four of whom return this season.

When Sims wasn’t running it was another freshman, Jahmyr Gibbs, that got the bulk of the carries. Gibbs had 460 yards and four touchdowns on 89 carries (5.2 yards/carry). But he didn’t just run the ball, he is also the team’s best returning receiver as well, as he caught 24 passes for 303 yards and three TDs.

Jordan Mason, a 6-1 junior, was right on Gibbs heels; rushing for 352 yards and a pair of scores on his 82 carries. Finally a duo of sophomores round out the backfield - Dontae Smith (296 yards and three TDs on 43 carries) and Jamious Griffin (47 rushes for 229 yards and two TDs).

With wideout Jalen Camp gone this season, GT will be looking for a new breakout receiver. Camp led the team last year with 29 grabs, 439 yards, and four scores. Last season, behind Camp and Gibbs, was Malachi Carter. The huge 6-3 junior had 20 receptions, 290 yards, and two scores. Fellow junior, Adonicas Sanders, could also break out this season. In 2020 he snagged 17 passes for 223 yards.

On defense Georgia Tech lost their leading tackler, David Curry. However, junior linebacker Quez Jackson does return. In 2020, Jackson amassed 80 tackles, had 4.5 TFL, three pass break ups, two interceptions, and added a fumble recovery, sack, and QB hurry.

Their secondary is incredibly deep, with TWENTY defensive backs on their roster. Juanyeh Thomas, Tariq Carpenter, Zamari Walton, and Wesley Walker all saw major playing time. Last season Carpenter and Walton led the team with five pass break ups each and the two players had three of GT’s six interceptions. Thomas and Walker combined for 107 tackles and had six pass break ups.

Jordan Domineck spearheads the team up front. Domineck, a sophomore, led the team with four sacks last year and tallied 35 tackles, 8.5 TFL, three forced fumbles, recovered two fumbles, and broke up a pass.


Prediction

If the young pups from DeKalb are able to slow down the dual-threat quarterback Sims, and get some pressure on him, he’s likely to make mistakes and turn the ball over which would allow NIU to keep the game relatively close.

Rocky Lombardi should help bolster the Huskie offense and get the passing game back on track but the young line will need to protect him, and the halfbacks, against Jordan Domineck and Quez Jackson.

The Huskies might be able to keep this game close for a little bit. Both teams will have a lot of young talent starting but, with Tech having a deeper, stronger team overall, the Yellow Jackets should start to pull away late.

NIU - 24
GT - 38