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2023 MAC Football Week 6 Game Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies at Akron Zips

The Zips and Huskies do battle, both looking for their first MAC win of the season.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Boston College Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies will keep their Ohio train rolling, as they’re in the middle of a three-game stretch against teams from the Buckeye State. This weekend, NIU will travel to Akron to do battle with the Akron Zips.

Both the Huskies and the Zips have struggled so far. The teams have identical records, at 1-4 overall and 0-1 in conference play and have each lost three games by just one possession - three of Akron’s losses have been by a combined 8 points. Akron’s struggles got even worse last week, when they found out they will be without their starting quarterback for the remainder of the year.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, October 7 at 2:30 p.m. ET
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: InfoCision Stadium — Akron, OH
  • Spread: NIU (-6.5)
  • Over/under: 43
  • All-time series: NIU leads, 11-6
  • Last meeting: Akron 44, NIU 12 — November 26, 2022
  • Last 5 meetings: NIU leads 4-1

Getting to know the Zips

NCAA Football: Akron at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned above, there was some sad news for the Zips this week, as it was revealed that starting quarterback DJ Irons has torn his ACL and will be out for the rest of the season. Irons, a great dual-threat quarterback, had wracked up nearly 1000 total yards before the injury. He was first on the team in passing, completing 66.2% of his throws for 722 yards and three TDs to three interceptions, and he was also their second leading rusher - tallying 215 and two more scores on the ground.

Taking over for Irons will be Jeff Undercuffler Jr., who is more of a pocket passer. Undercuffler has thrown the ball 41 times this season, completing 28 passes (68.3%) for 286 yards but he has thrown four interceptions to just one touchdown and has been sacked six times.

When talking about Undercuffler last weekend, Akron’s head coach, Joe Moorhead, said “Jeff’s a guy who led us to a win over Northern Illinois on the road last year and right to the edge against Buffalo in the season finale. He’s a guy that’s played a lot of football between Albany and here. He understands our system to get the ball out of his hand and to our receiving corps. You lose a little bit in the run game but that’s where Tahj [Bullock] brings a different dynamic.”

It would appear that the Huskies will also see Tahj Bullock, the now-backup quarterback, who is also a threat to run. So far on the season, Bullock is 0-1 passing but does have nine carries for 20 yards and a rushing touchdown.

The Zips have a trio of receivers with over 100 yards on the season and each of them also has at least 18 catches. Jasaiah Gathings leads the team in receptions (21) and yards (205) but is still looking for his first TD of the season. Daniel George has 18 grabs for 167 yards while Alex Adams has caught 19 passes for 165 yards and one score.

But NIU will also have to look out for running back Lorenzo Lingard in the passing game as well as on the ground. Lingard leads the team in rushing yards, with 238 and an average of 5.4 yards per carry but he also is fourth on the team in receiving yards, adding 159 more yards on his eleven catches. He has scored twice, netting both a rushing and a receiving touchdown.

On defense, Akron has some big playmakers. Sophomore linebacker Bryan McCoy leads the team with 51 total tackles (no other Zip has more than 30). He has also recovered a fumble and netted three tackles for loss.

Up front, watch out for CJ Nunnally. The big defensive lineman leads the team with five sacks - nearly half of Akron’s sacks - and 7.5 tackles for loss (25% of the team’s TFLs). In addition to his 18 stops, he has also forced a fumble

KJ Martin and Darrien Lewis have both been big in the secondary for the Zips. In addition to his 20 tackles, Martin leads the team with four pass break ups and also has a sack and an interception, which he returned 64 yards. Lewis is tied for second on the team with his 30 total tackles and also has two TFL, a quaterback hurry, and a fumble recovery.

Getting to know the Huskies

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Boston College Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

The Huskies showed some life on offense late last week, as they posted a season-high in yardage (444) and points (33) against the Toledo Rockets but still fell short in the 35-33 loss.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi looked more like his old self, completing 21 of his 31 attempts last week for 258 yards and two touchdowns. On the season he now has completed 55% of his throws for 824 yards and thrown three TDs and four interceptions. He’s also been sacked a whopping ten times - not what you’d expect as NIU was supposed to have one of the deepest and best offensive lines in the MAC.

Half back Antario Brown also got into a better grove last week, as he had 16 carries for 152 yards, which almost doubled his total coming into the game. So far on the season, Brown has 336 yards and touchdown on his 80 carries (4.2 yards per rush).

NIU likes to spread the ball around through the air, as seven Huskies have eight or more catches and four players have over 100 receiving yards. Kacper Rutkiewicz leads the team, with 19 grabs for 249 yards, but only has one TD. Tight end Chris Carter is the only Huskie with multiple receiving scores, as he has a pair to go with his nine catches and 130 yards.

Grayson Barnes and Davis Patterson are the other Huskies in triple digits, with Barnes catching eight passes for 111 yard and Patterson snagging ten passes for 106 yards. Trayvon Rudolph, who was expected to be a huge part of the passing attack this season, has just 80 yards on his twelve receptions.

The Huskie defense continues to well on third down, allowing teams to convert just 34.3% of the time - a huge improvement from last season and 36th in the country. And their 170.6 passing yards allowed is one of the best in the country, ranking first in the MAC and 15th in the NCAA.

Raishein Thomas has been everywhere for the Huskies. The defensive lineman leads the team in tackles (31), tackles for loss (4), and quarterback hurries (3). He also has 1.5 sacks and a pass break up. Next to him is George Gumbs, the former tight end who moved to the defensive line this season. Gumbs leads the team in sacks (2.5) and has also tallied 17 total stops, 3.5 TFL, two quarterback hurries, and forced a fumble against Nebraska.

Nate Valcarcel has also had a great season in the secondary for NIU. His 23 tackles ranks second on the team but he also has the Huskies’ only defensive touchdown - a 50-yard fumble return last week against Toledo. Valcarcel has also added a TFL, an interception, and QBH to his stat sheet.