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2023 MAC Football Week 3 Game Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies at Nebraska Cornhuskers

The very incarnation of an uneasy grin combined with a grimace.

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

This game has the potential to be fascinating, in the way two lumberjacks who’re three sheets to the wind punching at each other is fascinating.

If that sounds of interest to you, then Saturday’s matchup between the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-1) and the Nebraska Corhuskers (0-2) will be must-see TV.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 16th, 2023 at 7 p.m. Eastern time
  • Network: Big Ten Network (A valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Location: Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska
  • Gambling considerations: Nebraska is an 11-point favorite, with an over/under of 42, per DraftKings.
  • All-time series: Nebraska leads the series 2-1.
  • Last meeting: Nebraska revenged a boneyard loss two years prior, taking down NIU 44-8 in 2019.

Nebraska is off to a miserable start, losing a bar fight at 2 in the morning close game to Minnesota in Round 1 by the very Big Ten score of 13-10, and then getting the absolute snot beat out of them by Colorado, who used them for target practice. Georgia Tech transfer Jeff Sims is—to be as polite as possible—really struggling playing the game of football. His completion percentage is a hair south of 59 percent for 220 yards, one touchdown, and four interceptions, and let me tell you, those interceptions were hideous. His passer rating is sitting at 48.28, and that’s not exactly what you want to be seeing in your program’s QB1.

Sims is also the Cornhuskers’ leading rusher, with 158 yards and Nebraska’s sole rushing touchdown, and if you’re a Chicago Bears fan, you know that having your quarterback run and throw for nearly equal yardage that early in the season is not exactly a rousing statement in favor of your offensive scheming or line play. (Though, in fairness, their running back, sophomore Gabe Ervin Jr, is a close second in yardage with 129 yards; he and Sims are tied in rushing average at 5.4 yards-per-carry.) As you would expect of a Big Ten program, Nebraska’s rushing yardage significantly outclocks their receiving yardage, so in that regard they’re fitting into the conference nicely.

You’d expect from this rather dim analysis that Northern Illinois would stand a chance, but the Huskies are really not much better. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi only has a higher passer rating (62.82) because his yardage is significantly higher than Sims’s; his completion rate is lower (54.5 percent) and he, too, has only one passing touchdown to three interceptions.

The Huskies’ rushing-to-passing yardage ratio is inverse that of Nebraska, with over twice as many passing yards as rushing yards. This is a bit of a strange development, as NIU has built this team to be centered on in the run game. Whether that’s a symptom of gameflow over the last two contests or an indication their team set-up is flawed is yet to be seen. The Huskies have yet to prove they can perform as expected, rather than significantly over or under, beating Boston College badly but losing to a decent Southern Illinois team.

The overall stats flesh this idea out.

Despite holding advantages in time of possession (36:28 per game), playing cleaner ball (11 total penalties to 16), having a staunch third-down defense (7-of-28 on third-down) and out-gaining teams offensively so far, they’re still in coin flip territory on a weekly basis.

NIU is identical with opponents in points allowed (19.0), points scored per game (19.0), and points scored via turnovers (7), with the major red flag being turnover margin. NIU is -3 so far, with three interceptions and a fumble lost as compared to one interception plucked.

The matchups to watch this game will be the Northern Illinois passing game against the Nebraska secondary, and the Nebraska running game against the Northern Illinois defensive line.

Nebraska’s secondary is porous, but that running game is a legitimate danger. However, there’s the possibility that the Huskies may elect to just try and outscore the Huskers; the wrinkle in that plan is that Northern Illinois has only been averaging 19 points a game through their first two, as mentioned prior. They’ll need to be a lot more efficient if they hope to walk out with another boneyard win.