NIU was able to finish .500 in non-conference games, including that big win over Nebraska, and then started off MAC play with two wins. They could easily be 6-0 right now but, as it stands, their 4-2 record is still pretty good as they head into the meat of the conference games.
With that in mind, let’s grade the Huskies by position.
We have seen three players under center for NIU and, as a unit, they’ve been a little above average so far this season. Combined they have completed 59% of their passes for 1200 yards, 12 touchdowns, and seven picks. The interceptions have really hurt NIU late in some games (SDSU and Buffalo come to mind) and sometimes haven’t been able to find a rhythm but, for the most part, they’ve kept NIU in games.
Unlike the other units on here, I wanted to break down each of the three QBs we’ve seen this year individually as well because they’ve all played quite different styles.
Ryan Graham: C-
Graham has only started one game before getting injured and struggled finding his receivers. He completed under 40% of his passes but threw for 195 yards and ran for 90 more. His accuracy is worrisome and he has been injury prone but he can make things happen with his legs.
Daniel Santacaterina: B
Santa has been the most consistent passing QB for the Huskies, connecting on 65% of his passes and amassing 642 yards and six TDs. It all looked good until the the San Diego State game where he threw three INTs and showed that his decision making could still use some work. His accuracy, especially on deep throws, has usually looked pretty good though but he doesn’t bring much into run game.
Marcus Childers: B+
If Graham is a runner and Santa is a passer, then Childers is the hybrid.
Childers, who came in during the Kent State game, has showed that, like Santa, he can move the ball well too. Hitting 63% of his passes, he’s thrown for 355 yards and four scores with just one pick in his two games. He’s also Jordan Lynch-esque and not afraid to run the ball, adding 202 yards and two rushing scores. Let’s see if he can develop into something special.
Running Backs: B-
NIU is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry and has five rushing TDs in six games. That’s not good for a team that usually prides themselves on their strong run game.
Jordan Huff started the season as a highly touted back in the MAC but he has struggled at points this year.
With the passing game being so inconsistent, NIU needs to figure out the running game if they want to continue to win against their MAC opponents.
Wide Receivers: B+
The receiver corp for NIU has been a savior at times for the Huskies. The QBs have distributed the ball to the top four receivers evenly. Christian Blake, Spencer Tears, Chad Beebe, and D.J. Brown have come up with some huge plays to keep NIU close in games. Each of the four has at least one catch of 40+ yards and 150+ receiving yards with Blake, Brown, and Tears each having 22+ receptions.
Outside of the top four receivers though, there hasn’t been much production. Well, one other player has done a lot in the passing game...
Tight End: A-
Shane Wimann has been a great target for NIU in the red zone. He leads the team in TD receptions with four and has a total of 14 catches for 144 yards. There’s a reason he will finish as NIU’s all time leader in TD’s by a tight end (a record he’s already broke and just adding to).
Offensive Line: B
The O-line has blocked pretty well but have had some problems opening holes up for running backs at times. But they’ve protected the QB well and have allowed just 13 sacks, or just two per game.
Christian Hagan has slipped from a very reliable kicker to a liability.
This season he has only been successful on four of his ten FG attempts, which would which is bad...real bad.
He is 19/19 on extra points and he’s been decent on kickoffs, netting six touchbacks and averaging 61.9 yards per kick. But even that hasn’t been perfect as he has kicked two out of bounds this season so far.
I still contend that if NIU is inside the forty...maybe they should just go for it.
Defensive Line: A
This D-line has been the biggest and best surprise for the Huskies this year. Sutton Smith has dominated every team this year so far and is the the NCAA leader in sacks (8.5, 1.42/game) and tackles for loss (16, 2.7/game). Overall he has 32 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and two pass break-ups. The rest of the line, while not as disruptive in the backfield, have been a nightmare to run on. They’re the reason NIU is only allowing 2.4 yards per rush and under 100 yards on the ground per game (93.5).
As good as the D-line has been, the linebackers have been better. They have stopped the run, stopped the pass, wrapped up, and allowed very few broken tackles.
Bobby Jones and Jawuan Johnson have combined for 98 tackles and a slew of TFLs and sacks. Jones has 54 tackles, eight TFL, three sacks, and an interception. Johnson might have less tackles (44, 7.5 TFL, and a sack) but he leads the team with three interceptions including a pick-six and has forced a fumble. Kyle Pugh played like a man possessed before going down with a season-ending injury against SDSU and Alex Schwab has done well as his replacement.
The Huskies are only allowing 187.7 passing yards per game and just allowed five passing TDs.
Shawun Lurry has continued his great career, adding two picks this season, including an 87-yard pick-six in Lincoln, Nebraska and a 45-yard scamper against Kent State. Safeties Mycial Allen and Mykelti Williams each have interceptions as well. Allen, Williams, Lurry, and Albert Smalls all have 3+ pass break-ups as well.
However, they have shown a tendancy to give up some big plays to receivers and have been called for quite a few PI penalties which is why I can’t give them an A.
They are a very good unit and can cover players like blankets but have momentary lapses in coverage at times and that can/has let opponents back in the game.
Freshman punter Matt Ference has been very successful this season.
He’s averaging 41.3 yards per punt and has six of 50+ yards. Of his 43 punts nearly a third (14) have been inside the 20-yard line. And, even better than that, ten have been inside the 10-yard line, and six (yes, SIX!) have been inside the 5-yard line.
Ference has been great at pinning teams deep in their own territory.
Head Coach: B+
Yes, that’s right I’m giving Rod Carey a B+ rating.
A lot of Huskie fans might take issue with that rating but hear me out. I, like most of you, have been disappointed with Carey’s offensive/ultra-conservative play calling, his recruiting classes, and his bowl record.
However, he has killed it against B1G teams, keeps NIU rolling in the MAC, and it looks like he has finally started to recruit better (the Huskies already have more than 20 commits for next season...most in the MAC).
This year, yes the offense has still struggled, but the team has been in every game and, really, should have won every game. For the first time since 2003 NIU actually has a great defense and Carey is the main reason for that.
We all know it’s near impossible to for a coach to win every game. But maybe, just maybe, this is the year we start to see change. It certainly looks like this could be the year we see Carey start to turn this team around and get them to the level they were at when he took over.
Only time will tell. But, so far this year, Carey has done better than he has in years past.