The Northern Illinois Huskies are coming off of their first losing season since 2008 and the first season they didn’t get a bowl invite since 2007. This season they’ll won’t have wide out Kenny Golladay (who now plays for the Detroit Lions) or halfback Joel Bouagnon...plus the quarterback position still isn’t quite figured out yet either.
Huskie fans aren’t too sure what they’ll see on the field this year. There is plenty of talent on the roster but will it translate back in to wins...or will Head Coach Rod Carey still be on the hot seat with fans by the years’ end?
Five Players to Watch
Jordan Huff, #23, HB (Sr.)
Huff was second behind Bouagnon last season, carrying the ball 111 times for over 700 yards and five rushing TDs. This year should be his year as the premier back - or at least the top carrier. The 5-10 running back is quick and shifty, yet surprisingly strong making it really hard to bring him down...which is why in his Huskie career he’s averaging just under seven yards per carry (6.93 to be exact).
Jauan Wesley, #9, WR (Jr.)
Wesley transferred from Iowa State but had to sit out last year due to transfer rules. This year, however, the 5-11 junior will be eligible to play and should make an impact immediatley since Golladay and Aregeros Turner (NIU’s top two leaders in receptions) are gone. As a Cyclone Wesley racked up 40 receptions, 400+ yards, and a few scores. Look for him to add some more depth to the Huskies receiving corp, which no longer has that standout leader that they found with Golladay.
Shawun Lurry, #19, CB (Sr.)
Yes, of course Shawun Lurry was going to be a player to watch. Although last season he didn’t have quite the same campaign as he did in 2015, as he suffered some injuries, Lurry was still a headache for quarterbacks across the MAC. He led the team in pass break-ups (7), was tied for first in interceptions (3, with Mayomi Olootu), and had 38 tackles to boot. If he can nap four picks this season he will be NIU’s all-time leader in interceptions and is already fifth all-time in pass break ups.
Mycial Allen, #20, S (Sr.)
Allen returns as the standout safety for NIU. The 5-11 senior is the leading returning tackler, as last year he amassed 61 tackles, three of which were for a loss. He was also one of a handful of Huskies to have multiple interceptions, as he had a pair of picks last year. With Allen and Lurry (and Olootu and Albert Smalls too) lurking in the backfield, this secondary could give MAC QBs a very hard time.
Chad Beebe, #82, WR (Sr.)
After missing last season Chad Beebe will get to play once again. He can do it all for NIU; catch, run, return...and even defend (he has five special teams tackles). Beebe was NIU’s best punt returner in 2015 and will most likely get to do that again this season. With the Huskies looking for a standout receiver, don’t be surprised to see a lot of passes head his way.
Four Can’t Miss Games
Sept 1: Boston College Eagles
The first game of the season happens on Friday September 1st. The Huskies will play host to Boston College at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. This will be the first time a P5 team has come to NIU since 2012 when Kansas made the journey. Boston College has been at the bottom of the ACC for a while and these two teams played a close one a few years back...with BC narrowly winning. If NIU can come out of gates strong and find a way to take the Eagles down it could really set the tone for the year. If it’s anything like the 2015 game, expect a low-scoring, defensive battle with special teams making the difference.
Sept 16: @ Nebraska Cornhuskers
NIU might have the toughest, and certainly one of the best, non-conference schedules this year in the MAC. Two weeks after BC, NIU will head to Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers. While I think the Huskers will have their way with the Huskies...it will still be a fun trip to take for fans and the team. Anytime the Huskies play a B1G team there’s hope for win...but with this one, I think I’m just hoping for a close game.
Sept 30: @ San Diego State Aztecs
Another good match up for the Huskies is this game with the Aztecs. NIU will hope to get a little payback after SDSU pounded the Huskies on the ground last year en route to a 42-28 victory in DeKalb. The Aztecs wont quite have the same ground attack as Donnel Pumphrey is now in the NFL but this is still a very talented team that will make NIU work for the win. It can be done and I think this will be another close match...if the Huskie QBs can keep mistake to a minimum.
Nov 2: @ Toledo Rockets
I kept going back and forth on which game was a must see: Toledo or Western Michigan. And both might be...but for NIU fans, the Toledo game means so much more than the game against the Broncos (especially now that PJ Fleck is gone). ESPN’s Football Power Index gives NIU just a 19% chance to win right now, third lowest on the year behind Nebraska (15.6%) and SDSU (18.2%)...but it’s a rivalry game on a Halloween week. Anything can happen. I know the Huskies, and Huskie fans alike, all get fired up for this game...it’s circled on every NIU players’ calendar.
Three Markers of Success
Start the season off with a win
Last season the Huskies dropped their first four contests, including a game to FCS opponent Western Illinois, and continued to lose six of their first seven (thanks Ball State!). This season the Huskies must start with a victory...at least in the first two games. The Boston College game will be difficult but a win is not out of the question there. However, the next week a win is crucial as NIU takes on another in-state FCS team - Eastern Illinois. A loss to EIU and Huskie fans will most likely turn on the team/Coach Carey and want him out on the spot. A win is crucial since the final two non-conference games will be brutal for NIU...and entering MAC play 1-3 (hopefully better though) will be a lot more respectable than 0-4 again.
Use all the play-makers
The Huskies offense has a lot of different play-makers that should be involved in multiple ways. Wide outs Beebe, Blake, D.J. Brown, Ezra Saffold, Spenser Tears, along with newcomers Wesley and Kelly Weese should all be able to make an impact moving the ball over the middle, on screens, and even on jet sweeps. There is speed on the edges and NIU needs to utilize that.
There is quite a lot of talent running the ball behind Huff as well. Tommy Mister, the junior transfer from Indiana University, and sophomore Marcus Jones both have big play potential and can take pressure off of Huff, as he did for Bouagnon last year. Offensively, the Huskies should be able to move the ball if the QB play is even just average.
The secondary shines through
The strength of NIU’s defense is by far their secondary. They are packed full of talent at both the cornerback and safety positions. If the Huskies can stop the air-attack and force teams to run the ball more the season could be a huge success. But key players will have to step up and cause multiple turnovers every game...avoiding serious injuries will help too.
Two Things to Watch For
Struggling QB Play (Early On)
We’re all still waiting to see who will be the starting QB come September 1st...will it be Ryan Graham or Daniel Santacaterina (or even someone else!). Both struggled last year with accuracy and timing to receivers...and that was with the big body of Golladay helping them out. I don’t expect a ton of success early on but hopefully by MAC play we’ll know what works and what doesn’t. Even if that means starting a freshman like Rodney Hall.
A Strong Start in Conference Play
The Huskies drew a pretty manageable conference slate this year. They could easily start 5-1 (or better!) even. In their first four MAC games, the Huskies will face Kent State, Buffalo, Bowling Green, and then Eastern Michigan. I don’t see a reason NIU can’t win all of those games and head into the Toledo game at 4-0 in conference play. If that happens...there could once again be a lot riding on the Toledo game for both teams before the Huskies take on Ball State the next week.
One Bold Prediction
NIU reaches a bowl game again. It’s kind of sad that reaching a bowl game is a bold prediction for the Huskies. But a daunting non-conference schedule and key games late in the year against the best MAC teams means NIU could struggle to get more than six wins.
Realistically I see NIU winning just one non-conference game (EIU; but hopefully they can steal a win from either BC or SDSU as well) before turning it up against MAC teams in the middle of the season and gaining confidence into the final stretch against teams like Toledo, WMU, and CMU...who are three of their final four opponents.
Prediction: NIU goes 7-5 (6-2 in the MAC), gets 2nd place in the MAC West, and goes bowling (hopefully winning one finally).