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2017 Week 2 Preview: EIU Panthers @ NIU Huskies

The Huskies look to rebound from last week’s nail-biter and get in the win column

NCAA Football: Boston College at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies nearly pulled the upset over ACC foe Boston College last week but now have their sights set on in-state rival Eastern Illinois, who travels to DeKalb this Saturday.

The Eastern Illinois Panthers, an FCS team out of the Ohio Valley Conference, are coming off a last second win against Indiana State last week. A touchdown with three seconds left lifted EIU to a 22-20 win over the Sycamores.

This week, the Panthers will return to Huskie Stadium for the first time since 2013. Huskie fans remember the game four years ago when former Panther QB Jimmy Garoppolo got EIU out to a 20-0 lead and nearly upset the Huskies before Jordan Lynch and Cameron Stingily mounted a comeback and escaped with a 43-39 win.

Fortunately for Huskies, this time around the Panthers don’t have the same explosive offense that they did four years ago.

Players to Watch

Mitch Kimble, QB, EIU

Kimble, a transfer from Syracuse, has struggled with injuries (he missed all of 2015 and four games last year) but he’s back for his senior year and was quite effective in the season opener, completing 27 of 44 pass attempts (61.4%) for 202 yards and a touchdown (the game winning pass). He’s won’t kill you with deep balls or his legs but he’s a very good game manager, spreads the ball around, and can keep a drive going. The Huskie linebackers are going to have to step up in pass protection because, with Kimble at the helm, expect a lot of mid-range passes and check downs.

Sutton Smith, DE, NIU

The sophomore defensive end made his mark against Boston College and was named to Bleacher Reports First Team All-Week. He was basically in the Eagles backfield as much as their players were, as he tallied five tackles for a loss (which was one off Larry English’s record of 6 TFLs) and a sack. When Smith made a tackle BC lost fact BC lost 32 yards in his six tackles. With EIU being a pass happy offense, look for Smith to disrupt their rhythm and force Kimble to throw on the run.

Tray Mitchell, S, EIU

Mitchell, who moved from WR to safety last year, had his own dominating performance last week. He piled up 11 tackles (5 solo), three TFL, forced and recovered a fumble, had a pass break-up, and even had a sack. The 5-11 senior was flying all over the field last week and expect him to do the same this week. He’s a solid safety that’s not afraid to come up to stop the run when needed.

Ryan Graham, QB, NIU

Graham is still under the microscope for NIU fans. Last week he played poorly but then all of a sudden he would play really we’re still not sure what we’re getting. Graham is the driving force to NIU’s offense but it’s hard to tell what we’re going to see on any given drive. Some drives he would throw passes in the dirt or at the receivers legs and NIU would go 3-and-out. Then, on others, he ran the ball effectively, was making solid throws while on the run, and the Huskies moved the ball and scored on (almost) all those drives. He finished the game 15 of 38 passing (39.47%) for 190 yards with a TD and a pick while also rushing for 99 yards.

Keys to the Game

Continue to get pressure on defense

The Huskies defensive front four looked, and played, at a higher level than most thought they never would have guessed that three of the four were getting their first start ever. And, with EIU having a much smaller O-line than BC, the Huskies should be able to disrupt a lot of the Panthers plays. Also look for sophomore linebacker Kyle Pugh to continue his solid season (last week he amassed 17 tackels and intercepted a pass). Whether it’s getting pressure on Kimble and forcing him out of the pocket or stopping their leading rusher, Isaiah Jonhson (who gained 66 yards in 15 carries last week), NIU’s D-line and linebackers needs to put a lot of heat on EIU’s offense.

Avoid three-and-outs

The Huskies had NINE drives that netted them 11 yards or less (not even including taking a knee to end the first half)! On five of those dives NIU didn’t get more than five yards and had to punt. The offense needs to find a way to move the ball consistantly, whether that means a change a QB or some new and exciting plays. Speaking of playcalling...

Mix it up offensively!

NIU repeated a lot of plays last week that continually didn’t work and put the Huskies in a bad position right off the bat. Three times we tried a QB roll-out where Graham would then pitch the ball to the running lost yards every time. Twice on thrid-and-long we ran QB keepers with got us no where. Christian Blake ran a streak route up the sideline at least six times...none of them worked and one was picked off.

If you watched the game for more than 30 minutes I can guarentee you saw NIU run the same play multiple times...even the ones that didn’t work. There needs to be more variety in the playcalling if nothing more than to keep defenses honest and on their toes.

Game Notes

The game kicks off at 3:30 p.m. (2:30 CST) on Saturday, September 9th at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. You can watch the game on ESPN3 or listen live on 98.9 FM, 560 AM, or 1360 AM.

It will be the 38th meeting all time between the two schools with NIU claiming a commanding 26-10-1 record and a 16-5 advantage when at home against EIU.

However, the Huskies and Panthers have not played much since the Huskies became an FBS team; 30 of the 37 previous games were played between 1933 and 1965. This is just the fifth meeting since 1990, with NIU having a 3-1 advantage in that time.


The Panthers are a good FCS team and are even getting votes in the FCS Top-25 poll. But, while EIU might be able to sustain a few drives on offense and stop NIU on defense, I don’t see this as being as close as the last matchup.

The Huskies defensive line should be able to wear down the Panthers offensive attack and NIU’s strong secondary should be able to handle the receivers EIU has, and maybe even get a few picks along the way.

Boston College was easily one of the best defenses NIU will see this year. So we’ll see how Graham does against a less dominating force and if he is more comfortable this week. If he continues to struggle gaining yards, I would say it’s time to change it up and move to Daniel Santacaterina.

With an improved defense and more depth, size, and skill on offense, the Huskies shouldn’t have as tough of a time this week on their way to a 1-1 start.

Prediction: NIU 35, EIU 17