All three of the Huskies’ losses have come against P5 opponents and now, as we enter MAC play next weekend, here are the five things we’ve taken away from the non-conference schedule.
1. Penalties have been a big issue so far
This has hurt the Huskies both ways. NIU has been flagged 27 times while their opponents have only been called for 15 fouls. So opponents have been getting free yardage while not giving up much to NIU.
This season NIU is averaging just under 7 flags per game and have given opponents a total of 250 free yards from those fouls. Saturday against Vandy, the Huskies were called for a season-high nine infractions which set them back 74 yards. In the season opener against Illinois State they had eight penalties which cost them 86 yards.
During the first three games, NIU opponents were called for a total of six fouls and just 56 yards. So to have the Commodores tie the Huskies with nine penalties, netting 97 yards, was a rare benefit.
Heading into MAC play, the Huskies will need to be more disciplined and keep those fouls in check.
2. The O-Line still hasn’t looked too good
NIU had a season high 108 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry against Vanderbilt...but those numbers still aren’t good. And, with the line allowing 31 tackles for loss in the first four games (nearly 8 TFL per game!!), it’s been really hard to get a consistent ground game going.
And, when you don’t have an effective run game, it means you have to rely on the pass...but the O-Line has also been giving up a bunch of sacks. Huskie quarterbacks have been sacked 12 times this season so far (three times per game) and hurried an additional seven times.
Combine that with the penalties and it’s no wonder that...
3. Third down conversions have been AWFUL
From the get go this season NIU has struggled to convert on third downs and keep the chains moving. The Huskies are 14 of 61 on 3rd down attempts...or a mere 22.95% which is DEAD LAST in the FBS.
A lot of their struggles in this area has come from the penalties taken early in drives but also from that weaker offensive line that we’ve seen so far. The O-Line struggles have led to minimal gains on first and second down, if any gain at all, and that has set NIU up in a lot of third-and-long situations.
The Huskies will find themselves in deep trouble and sweating out a lot of close games in the MAC if this continues.
4. The tight ends have looked real good with Ross Bowers
Bowers has shown NIU fans that he has the ability to generate a solid passing attack for NIU, as the Huskies have thrown for 225+ yards in all four games this season. Last year, Marcus Childers only threw for 200+ yards twice (FSU and in the MACCG against Buffalo).
And Bowers’ favorite targets have been the tight ends, Daniel Crawford and Mitchell Brinkman. Crawford leads the team with 14 receptions while Brinkman is tied in second with 12.
Crawford is second on the team with 231 yards, which is just 10 yards shy of the team leader. Brinkman has added 137 yards himself and scored the Huskies first touchdown last weekend.
The duo has been just as effective as NIU’s two leading wide outs - Spencer Tears and Tyrice Richie. They have 12 snags each and, while Tears has a team-high 241 yards, Richie leads the team with two receiving TDs and has 193 yards.
Brinkman and Crawford have done a great job down low and been a huge boost to this offense early on.
5. The Huskies D hasn’t been as powerful as expected
While they have played well for the most part, the NIU defense has struggled to get pressure and create turnovers, something they did very well the past few seasons. Yes, the loss of Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran hurt...but the Huskies still have a lot of weapons on defense that just haven’t played as well as they should.
Up front, they’ve only gotten three sacks all season (two of which came last game) and have forced only six QB Hurries so there has been no real pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
They have managed 27 TFL but are still giving up over 5.3 yards per carry, which has allowed opponents to average over 166 rushing yards per game. A very high number compared to the last few seasons.
The final thing that has hurt the defense is a lack of turnovers. They have a turnover margin of -1 despite having plenty of chances to take the ball away. NIU has only managed one interception and two fumble recoveries, while throwing three INT and losing a fumble of their own.
Next week the Huskies finally head back home, where they haven’t played since August 31st. They’ll face off against the Ball State Cardinals, with the winner claiming the Bronze Stalk Trophy.