After Northern Illinois opened up this season's campaign with a home thumping against Presbyterian, there were still a lot of unanswered questions about the fabric of the team.
The quarterback situation was still foggy after the team's opening win. Huskies fans still did not know how a brand new set of four starters on the defensive line would fare this year with just one game under their belts against an FCS opponent.
Yet, Saturday's 23-15 victory over in-state Big Ten counterpart Northwestern gave NIU fans a lot to be happy about.
Drew Hare shined above the other two QB's, and is surely the starter vs UNLV
Matt McIntosh was named the starting quarterback coming into the Northwestern game after his steady outing vs Presbyterian. The junior from Evansville, Indiana. was not the same player this time out. McIntosh looked rattled at times in the early going, and overall he provided no fluidity, stability, or productivity to the offense in his time on the field.
Starting with his passing, McIntosh was just out of sorts. Many throws that should have been made were inaccurate and/or overthrown. The biggest miss came on NIU's very first offensive series on third down and one yard to go. The Huskies elected to go with a quick wide receiver screen to the senior speedster Tommylee Lewis, yet McIntosh rushed his throw and darted one off to Lewis with no sort of care taken in the delivery at all.
The offense sputtered and that prompted head coach Rod Carey to replace Matt McIntosh with redshirt sophomore Anthony Maddie. Maddie, who in my opinion was quite unlucky with his showing in the Presbyterian game, gave NIU a boost while he played the role of reliever throughout the late stages of the second quarter heading into halftime.
He went 3-4 for 36 yards and rushed for 20 yards on four carries as well. Maddie gave NIU life on offense, just after they had their first scoreless first quarter in a long time (2011). He led the Huskies into the red zone towards the end of the second quarter, yet Tyler Wedel did as MAC kickers do and missed from 25 yards out.
Coming out of a scoreless half, Drew Hare got his chance to have the keys to the offense. He delivered. He was extremely impressive as a passer, showing good arm strength, contrary to my belief coming into this game. Hare's final line was 6-10 for 109 yards, including two huge touchdowns through the air and one on the ground. He threw a couple of absolute darts on those touchdowns to Da'Ron Brown. The first near the end zone on a little slant pattern, and the second was an absolute beauty hitting Brown again in stride on a deep bomb that gave NIU a nine point lead in the fourth.
Hare was certainly better than a timid McIntosh on the ground as well. While he may be no Jordan Lynch (we all know none of these fellas are), Hare proved to have a knack of knowing when to escape and scramble when things did not go right. He runs very upright opposed to Lynch who had a lot more lower body strength, but Hare's speed is definitely dangerous to opposing teams when he gets loose.
Now then, all things are pointing to Hare being the starter at UNLV next week. He brought the offense into full bloom and led NIU to victory. But don't go and deem him the full time man for the rest of the year just yet.
Something tells me that Rod Carey really wants this QB race to be well thought out and fair. He has thoroughly praised all three of the QB's who are gunning for this position and seems to have faith in them. Nevertheless, Hare stepped up, and for that he has earned the start vs UNLV in all likelihood.
Cam Stingily is a weapon NIU must utilize as much as possible
That is correct. You read that right. NIU's senior running back who surprised us last year in the backfield, made a splash in the game Saturday versus Northwestern. It was said late in fall camp that Stingily suffered an injury, that was never identified, and was projected to miss the first few weeks of the season.
Well, he came into the game Saturday, and it was a delight for Huskies fans to see him. He certainly is being held back with caution by NIU, as he only carried the ball six times, but boy, were those some solid six carries. Stingily averaged 7.7 yards per carry, and many Wildcats defenders really struggled to bring him down after first contact. The converted linebacker is dangerous, and he must be utilized as much as possible from here on out. Obviously Huskie fans should not expect to see number 42 getting 20 carries against UNLV next week, but his presence along with the band of other skill position offensive players will give whomever the quarterback is going forward a good host of options and more comfort.
NIU's pass rush is much improved (You can thank Jason Meehan)
It is no secret that NIU's defense last year was average at best. Although the defensive line was one of the strong points in a rather weak unit overall. All four starters from last year are gone, and four new ones are in.
They did well. Particularly in the pass rush department. Two defensive ends who saw time last year on the field, Jason Meehan and Perez Ford, were great Saturday when it came to getting pressure on the quarterback. Meehan had a sack, and multiple hits on Trevor Siemian, the Northwestern signal caller. Meehan was quick off the edge and proved to be very athletic and aggressive. Ford showed more the same qualities himself.
The Huskies had a lot of blitzes in the game plan and executed them wonderfully. Last season Ken Bishop was really the only d-lineman who was productive in getting to the quarterback. This year may be different.
The secondary has some bright spots, but needs a lot of work still
Northern Illinois fans knew that secondary was going to need improvement this season. It is the unit that can arguably be blamed for the team dropping the MAC title game to Bowling Green last year, and the best player in that unit, Jimmie Ward, went on to the NFL as a first round choice for San Francisco.
Saturday, the new look secondary looked good at moments. Paris Logan made a terrific play on the ball in the first half, making a one handed interception in the end zone. It was a play reminiscent of Jimmie Ward's spectacular effort to snatch that ball for a pick at Toledo last season. Two true freshman got significant time in the game as well in the secondary. Mayomi Olutoo Jr. and Albert Smalls, out of high school from Texas and Florida respectively, made a couple of nice plays on the ball each. They did their part and showed potential.
Senior Dechane Durante, who I believe to be a future NFL prospect in the upcoming draft, played OK at safety in this game. It is on him to be the leader of this secondary much like Jimmie Ward last season, and he can do it. Durante was out of position on the first Northwestern touchdown when Siemian found a man wide open over the middle, yet Durante was able to make most of the other plays that he had too.
No change in the kicking game
Didn't we all see this coming? Northern Illinois' last kicker, Matt Sims, graduated. Tyler Wedel has now taken over as the do it all man on special teams, serving as the kicker and punter.
The trend of MAC kickers missing easy field goals started with Wedel on the opening Thursday of the college football season, as he missed from 21 yards in the first game. Things did not change.
Wedel missed his first field goal try from 25 yards away. Twenty-five yards! Then, things got even more embarrassing from a MAC/Northern Illinois standpoint when Wedel failed to even get the ball off the ground on a botched extra point after the first Da'Ron Brown touchdown, bouncing the ball off his line's legs. Should we call that Wedeling?
Onto the next one
All in all Northern Illinois' showing Saturday was pretty good. Another win over a B1G team, another road win as well. Prospects for the season look promising after a game vs real competition.
Las Vegas is calling.