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2023 MAC Football Week 2 Game Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies vs Southern Illinois Salukis

The Huskies need to avoid the trap game this week when they take on in-state rival Southern Illinois

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

The Northern Illinois Huskies are coming off their 18th win over a P5 team after sneaking out of Chestnut Hill with a 27-24 overtime victory against Boston College. But this weekend’s match up is the definition of a trap game. And won’t be easy.

Sandwiched between a huge victory and another big game against Nebraska next week, the Huskies will take on in-state foe, and FCS opponent, the Southern Illinois Salukis.

While the Huskies need overtime to down their ACC opponent, SIU was able to cruise to a 49-23 victory over Austin Peay in their opening game, going up 35-0 midway through the third quarter and never looking back. The win propelled them into the FCS top-25, landing them at #24.

Game notes

  • Time and date: Saturday, September 9 at 3:30 p.m. ET (2:30 CST)
  • Network: ESPN+
  • Location: Huskie Stadium in DeKalb, Illinois
  • All-time series: NIU leads, 28-14-1
  • Last meeting: NIU 31, SIU 34 on September 8, 2007
  • Current streak: Buffalo 1 (2007)

This will be the 44th meeting between the two schools, with the Huskies winning 28 of the previous 43 match ups. The teams first met back in 1931, with Southern claiming a 17-6 victory. Over the next 60 years, the teams would meet up pretty often but the rivalry fell off in the early 1990s, as they have only met twice since 1993 - in 2004 and 2007.

NIU has won five of the last six meetings but the Salukis claimed the last contest 34-31, when they hit a last second field goal to upset the Huskies. However, Northern would get the last laugh in 2007, as they went on to hire SIU’s head coach - Jerry Kill - at the end of the season. Th Huskies are 16-5-1 when playing at home against Southern.


Southern Illinois

NCAA Football: Southern Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The Salukis just might have a more powerful offense than Boston, they definitely have a better offense than BC.

Sixth-year senior quarterback Nic Baker holds the reigns to this offense. Last week he completed 16 of his 23 throws (69.6%) for 219 yards and three touchdowns. He was so efficient that they took him out after it was 42-3 and their backup, Hunter Simmons, played for the final quarter.

Four Salukis had three or more receptions, with junior Izaiah Hartrup leading the way with five grabs, 80 yards and a score. Jaelin Benefield, D’Ante’ Cox, and Dayton Mitchell each had three catches with Benefield going for 72 yards (including a 54-yard TD strike), Cox netting 31 yards, and Mitchell finishing with 32.

On the ground they have quite a bit of depth and they will use it. Ro Elliot and Justin Strong got the bulk of their 44 carries, with Elliot rushing eight times for 39 yards and score and Strong carrying the ball ten times for 38 yards and a TD. Shaun Lester and receiver Benefield also had six carries each for 27 and 15 yards respectively, so NIU will need to watch out for jet sweeps and reverses.

The Salukis were five of 12 on third downs but were a perfect three for three on fourth down, both of which were areas of concern for this Huskie defense a year ago. However, SIU did commit twelve penalties for 130 yards.

Northern Illinois

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

The Huskies quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, isn’t coming off of his best game, as he completed just 13 of his 29 passes (44.8%) for 165 yards, but he is the undisputed leader of this team. There were times against BC where he had open receivers and overthrew the ball or put it too outside for them to reach but, when you need a play, he will make it. He’s a great game manager and can make throws in clutch moments.

Kacper Rutkiewicz was his main target last week with tight end Chris Carter, fullback Brock Lampe, and Trayvon Rudolph being the others to watch out for. Rutkiewicz led the team with five receptions for 46 yards while Carter matched his yard total on just two grabs. Rudolph didn’t get the ball as much as many though he would, only netting two receptions for 14 yards and three carries for 5 yards. Lampe has established himself as a big part of this offense already, after snagging two passes for 28 yards (including a big 16-yard catch in overtime to give NIU first and goal) and running it three times for 14 yards and a score.

NIU’s bread and butter is still the ground game. Against the bigger, stronger front line of Boston College, the Huskies halfback struggled some only amassing 166 yards on 48 carries (3.5/rush). Antario Brown, last week’s starter, ran it 16 times for 53 yards and a TD while also catching a 7-yard pass for another score as well. He went down in the second half with an ankle injury and, at the time of writing this, there has been no official update on him so he might not play or be 100% for this game. Instead, expect a heavy dose from Iowa-transfer Gavin Williams who carried the ball 15 times for 61 yards last week, and more from Lampe and Justin Lynch - the hybrid QB/RB who had a touchdown pass and three carries for 12 yards against the Eagles.

Northern fared quite well on their third down plays, converting on ten of their 18 tries (56%), and their offensive line didn’t give up a sack, allowing the Huskies to own the time of possession - 36:53 to just 23:07 (meaning NIU had the ball for nearly 62% of the game).


Southern Illinois

Southern Illinois v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

SIU was able to get a lot of pressure in the backfield last week, netting ten tackles of loss and four sacks. Their defense also had two interceptions, four pass break ups, and forced and recovered a fumble. Oh, and they held Austin Peay to just 3 of 12 on third down.

Cornerback DJ Johnson and safety PJ Jules each had a team-high six tackles in their opening game. Johnson, a former player at two B1G schools (Iowa and Purdue) added two TFL and a pick while Jules had a TFL of his own. Also sitting in the secondary for the Salukis is former MAC player Mark Davis Jr., who transferred over from Buffalo and was able to get a PBU, TFL, and two stops last weekend.

In the middle, their linebackers did most of the work last week, with four LBs having four or more tackles Branson Combs and Colin Bohanek each had five stops and 1.5 tackles for loss while Bohanek added .5 sack and Combs got a full sack. Zach Burrola also finished with five tackles, .5 sacks, and .5 TFL while Ben Bogle had four take downs.

The Salukis’ defensive line actually didn’t do a whole lot, as they let the linebackers and DBs get most of the stats. Defensive tackle Kam Bowdry was the only player on the front four to get more than one stop...he had two tackles, .5 sacks, and .5 TFL.

But even with only one DT/DE scoring two tackles, SIU was able to fully shut down the run game of the Governors. They allowed just 39 rushing yards on 23 attempts (1.7/rush) and held Austin Peay to a mere 22:20 minutes of time of possession.

Northern Illinois

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

Last season the Huskie defense did do so well. However, while there is still a lot to work on, after last week it looks like there has been quite a bit of improvement. NIU was able to hold the Eagles to just 5/16 on third downs (31%) and limiting their quarterbacks to just 168 passing yards...both massive gains from a year ago.

Five Huskies had 5+ tackles in the win over BC. Linebacker DaRon Gilbert led the team with six stops and also added a QBH. Three members of the secondary - C.J. Brown, Jacob Finley, and Nate Valcarcel - each had five stops, along with defensive end Raishein Thomas. Valcarcel added a tackle for loss and SHOULD have had an interception that would have sealed the game for NIU in regulation...but the pick was inexplicably overturned (with almost no evidence) to keep BC in the game.

NIU struggled to get players in the backfield last game - tallying just two TFL and a single sack - but they were going up against bigger and stronger players, which sadly, might be the case again this week. The offensive line of SIU averages 6-5 and 302.5 pounds while the Huskie starting front four average 6-3.5 and 272.8 pounds so they’ll need to use their speed and athleticism to get through.

The Huskie defense, especially the secondary, might be tested again here. JaVaughn Byrd already has one interception, while Valcarcel *should* have a second for them but they only managed to get one PBU, by Roy Williams, and will need to do better against this pass-heavy attack from Southern.


This game will not be the relaxing FBS/FCS match up we all hope it will be. The Salukis are a very tough out, and that #24 ranking could boost their confidence even more.

NIU will need to do what it did against BC and control the clock and the ball, taking their time and putting together nice, methodical drives. If the Huskies ground game can get going more here, which it should do against a worse defense than BC, Northern will be able to walk away with a win.

However, if the Huskies’ defense struggles to get off the field on third downs and the secondary gives up some big plays, this could go south for NIU.

It will be a close game but the Huskies are more talented overall and should pull this one out at home.

SIU - 28
NIU 34