The Northern Illinois Huskies dropped their third straight game on Wednesday night, falling 31-25 to the Ball State Cardinals but, despite the 0-3 record, the young group of pups made some positive strides.
This year, with 22 true freshman on the two-deep roster, the game plan for NIU is focusing on the growth and development of young players. So you’d think that they would be the ones making mistakes and hindering the Huskies...and, yet, the self-inflicted wounds that have really hurt the Huskies have mostly come from experienced starters, not the new guys.
The Offense Needs to Stop Giving Opponents Points...
Opponents are scoring 40 points per game, that’s never a good thing. But...in this crazy year of 2020, 30 points have actually been given up by the offense - two interceptions returned for touchdowns, two fumbles returned for a touchdown, and a safety.
25% of all points scored on the Huskies have occurred when NIU has had the ball.
And that stat alone is the main reason that NIU has lost two of their games.
Against Buffalo, NIU actually out-gained the Bulls and, if you take away the three defensive touchdowns, the Huskies out-score Buffalo 28-30. Last week, against Ball State, Bowers threw another pick six and NIU loses by one score.
Obviously there’s more to it than just that...but when your offense only scores 65 points for you and then an additional 30 points for your opponent, there’s just no way to win.
The Defense is Playing Well...For What They’ve Been Given
I know it’s weird to say when teams are scoring 40 points and gaining 400 yards per game but...the defense has looked better than I thought they would.
Yes, they have struggled to get consistent pressure in the backfield and have missed plenty of tackles this year. But they have also been put on their heels a lot from a struggling and turnover-proned offense.
They’re actually twelfth in the country in redzone defense, as teams are scoring just 69.2% of the time when entering the Huskie 20-yard line (only EMU is better in the MAC, at 58.3%). And they’re limiting teams to just 11/32 on 3rd Down Conversions.
The Huskie defense has done a really good job of keeping them in games early, only for the offense to implode and then fizzle out in the second half.
Time For A Quarterback Change?
It might be time for Coach Hammock to look at switching it up more often at quarterback.
And while Ross Bowers’ stats aren’t too terrible - he’s completed 60% of his passes and thrown for 641 yards and a pair of touchdowns and interceptions - the young offensive line has been very porous and has struggled to protect him.
With a young line struggling to protect him, the Huskies would benefit from a true dual-threat quarterback more so than a pocket-passer, as Bowers isn’t nearly as fast and agile as some of the other players.
While he’s got the most experience and is a senior, if you’re already committed to playing more than twenty freshmen, why not take a shot with a younger, faster quarterback and see what they can do.
Let Rodney Thompson or Dustin Fletcher or Drew Cassens take a few series...the speed and running ability of those three could just be what this offense needs.
This Team Will Be Dangerous Very Soon
Watching this team has been frustrating to say the least. But there have been a few bright spots on the roster that look to be in prime position to build the Huskies back up to a MAC West powerhouse.
Freshman running back Harrison Waylee has been slowly picking it up, as he has now rushed 40 times for 152 yards, leading the team is carries and yards.
Freshman wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph might be the brightest young star on this team. His 334 return yards is actually 12th in the NCAA, averaging 22.3 yards per return. He also has eight receptions for 157 yards, including a team-long 47 yard grab last game against Ball State.
On defense, sophomore linebacker Nick Rattin has continued to look good, sitting at second on the team with 20 tackles (only behind Kyle Pugh).
And in the secondary two players have stood out so far - sophomore transfer Jordan Gandy and freshman safety Devin Lafayette. Gandy has netted 18 tackles, two pass breakups, and an interception while Lafayette is right behind him with 17 stops, including a sack and tackle for loss.
Given a year or two to grow, this group of young players should be running the MAC come 2022.