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MAC Football Previews: Northern Illinois Huskies

The Huskies will look to rush their way to Detroit for a sixth straight MAC Championship game.

The Huskies take the field against Arkansas last season
The Huskies take the field against Arkansas last season
Beth Hall-USA TODAY Sports

Last season was supposed to be a "rebuilding year" for the Northern Illinois Huskies. After all, Jordan Lynch was gone, there was no clear-cut starting quarterback, the defense was going to be worse after losing Jimmie Ward, and it was finally going to be Toledo's year to win the MAC. Apparently the Huskies didn't get that memo. They weren't supposed to win 11 games, let alone the MAC Championship Game, and yet...they did.

Well this season  it's more of the same. Despite losing just a handful of players and returning the vast majority of their starters, the Huskies once again AREN'T predicted to win the MAC West...in fact they're not even supposed to be second. Most polls have NIU finishing third behind Toledo and Western Michigan.

Schedule

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 5 vs. UNLV 7:30 pm
Sept. 12 vs. Murray State 3:30 pm
Sept. 19 @ Ohio State 3:30 pm
Sept. 26 @ Boston College TBA
Oct. 3 @ Central Michigan 3 pm
Oct. 10 vs. Ball State TBA
Oct. 17 @ Miami 2:30 pm
Oct. 24 vs. Eastern Michigan 3:30 pm

BYE
Nov. 3 (Tue.) @ Toledo 8 pm
Nov. 11 (Wed.) @ Buffalo 8 pm
Nov. 18 (Wed.) vs. Western Michigan 8 pm
Nov. 24 (Tue.) vs. Ohio 7:30 pm

The Huskies start with a couple of home games that they should win with relative ease. Then on September 19th the Huskies take on the Ohio State Buckeyes who, you might remember, just won the first ever CFB playoff this January to become National Champs. A week later they head to Boston College to take on the Eagles before starting MAC play.

Anytime the Huskies take on a P5 team there's a hopeful-optimism from the NIU faithful that they COULD win...the Ohio State game does not have that feel to it. However, the Boston College game does. While I think it's safe to say most fans have the Ohio State game down as a loss already, NIU could realistically march out of Boston with a 3-1 record as the Eagles are inexperienced and will be coming off of a big conference game against Florida State.

The next week, NIU opens conference play against the only MAC school that has beaten the Huskies in the regular season over the past five years: the Central Michigan Chippewas. After CMU, the Huskies head home for Ball State and the Battle for the Bronze Stalk. On October 17th, NIU will go to Miami to play the RedHawks before returning to Huskie Stadium to take on EMU for homecoming on October 23rd.

But it's Tuesday, November 3rd and Wednesday, November 18th that you need to mark on your calendar. Toledo will host NIU on the 3rd and Western Michigan will head to DeKalb on the 18th. These are the games that will most likely determine which team from the West will head to Detroit - and the Huskies look to make it back there for the sixth consecutive year.

Head Coach: Rod Carey

Rod Carey enters his third full season as NIU's coach with a stellar record of 23-6, including a 15-2 mark against MAC opponents. The regular season has been great to Carey, as he is 23-2. But unfortunately he hasn't fared so well in post-season play, going just 1-4 between bowl games and MAC Championship games.

His offensive attack has been called a little predictable, and maybe so, but it has worked none-the-less. In his two seasons the Huskies have averaged over 35 points per game and 480 total yards per game.

Defensively NIU has gotten better under Carey as well. Last season the Huskies gave up just 228.5 passing yards per game, that's nearly 40 yards less than in 2013 when NIU had Jimmie Ward, who went on to be a first-round pick in the NFL draft.

Before NIU, Carey was the Offensive Coordinator for Wisconsin-Stout from 2000-2006, the Offensive Line coach at Illinois State in 2007 and then at North Dakota from 2008-2010. He joined the Huskies in 2011 as the O-Line coach. In 2012, he began the season as the O-Line coach, quickly became the Offensive Coordinator, and ended the season as NIU's head coach. His first game was a big one - the Orange Bowl against Florida State.

Five key players

1: Drew Hare, QB

The Huskie offense will live and die with Hare. He'll need to be as efficient this season as he was last, if not more so. He needs to develop a better deep ball and see if he can get more big plays out of this offense. He has the talent around him to do so.

2. Kenny Golladay, WR

Golladay has the potential to do great things in the MAC, where defense is an after-thought to offense. His skills and size should make him a prime target for Hare, especially in the redzone, and his speed should carry him the rest of the way.

3. Perez Ford, DE

Ford is a huge factor in deterring the run game and getting to the quarterback quickly. His speed and strength make him a very dangerous pass rusher/run stopper...which he'll need to continue this season.

4. Joel Bouagnon, RB

Bouagnon will need to make the most of starting this year, as he has some big shoes to fill. NIU has always been a run-heavy offense, which leads to easier passes for Hare. Bouagnon will need to make sure that the Huskies rushing attack doesn't take a step back.

5. Tommylee Lewis, WR

Lewis might not be the biggest or best receiver, but he is the fastest. Watch for NIU to use him in multiple ways (jet sweeps, quick screens, kick returns, ect). He has explosive abilities and can make most defenders miss.

How Hare, Bouagnon, and Lewis go, so goes NIU's offense.

The Huskies' Strong Suit

In a word, depth. NIU has a ton of depth and experience returning on both sides of the ball.

On offense the Huskies return seven starters, including their junior QB Drew Hare. Last season Hare beat out Anthony Maddie and Matt McIntosh to win the starting gig in week three. He proved to be a very efficient player, making very few mistakes. Completing just under 60% of his passes for 2322 yards, 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions, Hare also added 900 rushing yards and eight more scores on the ground. He might not have the big-play ability of Jordan Lynch but he does put the Huskies in a position to win games.

NIU did lose Cameron Stingily, Da'Ron Brown, and three starting linemen but should be prepared to deal with those losses.

Stingily will be replaced by a committee of running backs (Joel Bouagnon, Keith Harris Jr., Draco Smith, Jordan Huff, ect). Bouagnon is the most experienced back remaining, as he totaled 655 yards and five touchdowns on 113 carries last season. And at 6-2, 226 pounds, he's nearly as big and bruising as Stingily was...just faster. Harris, Huff, and Smith have all seen time as well but have only combined for 657 yards between them, so expect Bouagnon to lead the way. Also, expect to see a few newcomers this season as well, like D.J. Brown or Marcus Jones

The loss of Da'Ron Brown might seem like it would make one of the biggest impacts but don't forget Tommylee Lewis returns for his senior season. Lewis is one of the fastest players on the field and can hurt you in three ways: rushing, receiving, and kick returns. Along with Lewis, NIU also returns Juwan Brescacin and Aregeros Turner (who finished second and third last season in yards, receptions, and TDs) and Chad Beebe, who will be back this season after breaking his arm during MAC Championship Game. Beebe was fourth on the team in receptions and yards last year.

The Huskies also have a few new receivers who are poised to do big things in DeKalb.

Kenny Golladay, a 6-4 junior transfer from North Dakota, has quickly made a name for himself. In two season at UND, he snagged 99 passes for over 1300 yards and nine touchdowns. After redshirting last season, he's developed a good rapport with Hare and the other QBs and can do big things.

NIU also brings in Spencer Tears, a 6-1 freshman out of Oak Lawn, Illinois. In high school Tears was a four-star recruit and ranked the 48th best WR by ESPN. He garnered offers from schools like Indiana, Syracuse, Louisville, Purdue. Originally he committed to Nebraska but last June he decommitted from the Huskers to join the Huskies.

Much like the offense, the Huskies bring back most players from a year ago. In fact, the Huskies return eight starters on a defense that only allowed 25.6 points per game last year.

Five of the six leading tacklers come back this year, as only Dechane Durante is absent (however, if Rasheen Lemon remains suspended, it will be four of six).

Senior safety Marlon Moore, NIU's leading tackler last season, will continue to lead the secondary. Moore tallied up 99 tackles, 3.5 TFL, three pass breakups, had a pick, forced two fumbles and recovered another.

Paris Logan, a senior CB, will be matched up against the opponents best WR, as he is the best coverage cornerback NIU has. Last season Logan had 77 tackles and was second on the team with three interceptions. He also 15 pass breakups (over a THIRD of all breakups NIU had last year) and forced and recovered a fumble.

Senior Boomer Mays and junior Sean Folliard (and possibly Lemon too, as he's still listed on NIU's official roster) return to patrol the middle of the field. Mays had 75 tackles and was tied for second in TFL, with nine. He also added a pass breakup and a forced fumble. Folliard was right behind Mays with 65 tackles and eight TFL but he also had 3.5 sacks, two pass breakups, two QB hurries, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries.

Unknowns

While most of the starting players return, both the offensive line and defensive line have a few question marks.

The Huskies did lose three linemen to graduation. And, while NIU still has some talent there with Andrew Ness and Aidan Conlon, the other three starters have yet to proven for a long period. Andrew Ness will still be starting at center...something he has done every game for three seasons. That's right, since 2012 - an incredible stretch of 42 consecutive games - Ness has been the one snapping the ball. Much like Ness, Aidan Conlon has played every game since 2012 too.

The good news, however, is that NIU has used a rotating squad of linemen over the years, so even though Ness and Conlon are the only full time starters remaining, the new starters all have playing time. Josh Ruka, the other guard, played in all 14 games last season and 12 games the year before. Same can be said of Levon Myers and Lincoln Howard, who both played in every game at tackle last season.

So it's not like the Huskies are going in blind, it's just that these guys are not as inexperienced compared to the very talented linemen of the past.

The defensive line is the same way. The main force is Perez Ford, an explosive DE, that will anchor the Huskies D-Line that . Last year he had 57 tackles, was second on the team with nine TFL (tied with Mays) and five sacks, had five QB hurries, broke up three passes, and lead the team with three forced fumbles. While Cameron Clinton-Earl, Ben Compton, and William Lee all have playing time in the past, they are by far the weakest part of an otherwise very solid defense.

TL;DR: Season Outlook

NIU returns a lot of talent and has a very manageable schedule. Sure, they play Ohio State and travel to Toledo and CMU (who is apparently NIU's Kryptonite), but they have the depth and skill to win.

The Huskies have a target on their back...but they also have a chip on their shoulder. The past five seasons NIU has won the West, and yet, every year (with the exception of 2013) it has been Toledo or Western Michigan that have been favored to win.

So as we start this season and we get to hear once more how "this year is Toledo's year" and how NIU can't possibly win the MAC West (agian), the Huskies will hopefully ignore that memo too and just do what they've done so much of over the past five seasons: Win. The Hard Way.