The Northern Illinois Huskies escaped with a 34-27 opening week victory over the Eastern Illinois Panthers, one of their oldest rivals. For the Huskies there was a lot to like, especially in that first half, but also a lot to improve on.
And, while it’s hard to fully understand a team after just sixty minutes of football, here are a few of the biggest takeaways from the first game of the season.
The defense needs to play better...especially in the second half
The Huskie defense looked solid in the first 42 minutes, allowing just six points and forcing two turnovers. However, in the final 18 minutes of the game, EIU was able to score three touchdowns and move the ball incredibly well...netting eight passes and four rushes of 10 or more yards.
After 30 minutes of play, the Huskies had held EIU to just 126 yards and six points while also forcing two turnovers. However, by the end of the game the Panthers had tallied 441 total yards (315 yards in the second half) and boosted their average to 6.78 yards per play. They also scored three touchdowns in the final 17:43, while NIU netted just two field goals in that same timeframe.
The secondary gave up a bunch of yardage and was unable to defend the pass in the second half...they didn’t even record a single pass break up in the game. NIU, as a team, had just one - a knocked down pass by defensive lineman Ivan Davis.
Outside of Eric Rogers’ two interceptions, the Huskie defense backs were rarely seen near the ball while it was in the air. There was just too much space between them and the receivers, which allowed the Panthers net 11.4 yards per completion.
Tulsa has a predominantly aerial attack and, if the Huskie secondary plays like they did against Eastern, it could be a very long game for them this Saturday.
A second-half slowdown on offense is also a concern
Offensively, the Huskies gained 379 yards and split the offense almost evenly, with 192 coming through the air and 187 on the ground.
They were able to sustain drives throughout the game, punting just twice and having five of their nine drives (not counting the kneel to end the half) go for eight or more plays, with two drives even lasting 11 plays.
The major difference was when the Huskies got close in the first half, they were able to score touchdowns...in the second half, the offense relied more on the ground and pound strategy and ended up stalling out, having to settle for field goal attempts.
Between Waylee, Brown, and Blakemore, the backfield for the Huskies is insanely dangerous. Wasting as much clock as possible by churning yardage on the ground when leading is certainly a great strategy but the Huskie offense needs to find more ways to get to third and short. In their last three drives of the game, crucial drives, the Huskies had just one third down attempt under five yards.
NIU was a modist 6-11 on third downs and had just four 3rd-and-short attempts (3 yards or less)...they converted all four. Seeing more play action passes and/or roll outs with Lombardi on first or second down should help in setting up those third-and-short situations...and, as we’ve seen over the past few years, the Huskies are going to win those short yard battles nine times out of ten.
Newbie Shermar Thornton will see a lot of use in the Huskies offense
With speedster Treyvon Rudolph out for the season, the Huskies were in need of a big-time playmaker on offense and Shemar Thornton, the FIU transfer, looks to be just that.
In his Huskie debut he led the team in receptions (6) and yardage (81) and had one of the biggest plays on the day for the Huskies, a 38-yard grab on 3rd-and-10 that helped get NIU into field goal range, where they would score.
Three of his six receptions went for more than ten yards and four of the six would net the Huskies a first down. In addition to the 38-yard bomb, he also had gains of 14 and 19 while a six-yard reception resulted in a first down as well. His final two grabs were for gains of five yards and one yard.
His stat line of six grabs and 81 yards is already more than he had all of last year, when he saw just five reception and 27 yards.
He might not have the speed, or be used on jet sweeps, like Rudolph but look for him to be Lombardi’s go-to receiver through the air in 2022. He’s a big time target that will draw defenders on every pass.
Thornton should be an asset even when covered, as the defense will start to focus on him which should free up other receivers like Cole Tucker, Fabian McCray, Kacper Rutkiewicz, and/or the tight ends.