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2019 Northern Illinois Huskies Football Season Preview

How will the Huskies look with Coach Hammock at the helm?

NCAA Football: Boca Raton Bowl-UAB vs Northern Illinois Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies will most likely have a new look this year after a complete coaching overhaul as well as some key losses, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

2018 Quick Recap

Last season NIU finished 8-6, finding a way to win their fourth MAC Championship in eight years but lost their bowl game in blowout fashion.

They struggled early, winning just one of their first four games (an early conference win against CMU), while dropping games against Iowa, Utah, and Florida State. But, from there, they rode a six game winning streak, which included a 7-6 victory at BYU, locking up a spot in the MAC Championship Game before dropping the final two games.

Taking on Buffalo in the MAC Title game, the Huskies started off slow - trailing by 19 after the first 44 minutes of the game. Quarterback Marcus Childers exploded in the final 15 minutes and 17 seconds of the game, throwing three TD passes of 28+ yards, including a 35-yarder to D.J. Brown with 69 seconds left, giving the Huskies a 30-29 victory.

In the Boca Raton Bowl NIU was matched up with the UAB Blazers who torched NIU’s secondary en route to a 37-13 win over the Huskies. It was NIU’s sixth straight bowl loss and their fifth bowl loss of 20+ points under Rod Carey.

2019 NIU Huskies Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CST) TV
Date Opponent Time (CST) TV
Aug. 31st, Saturday vs Illinois State 6:00 p.m. ESPN+
Sept. 7th, Saturday @ Utah 12:00 p.m. PAC12
Sept. 14th, Saturday @ Nebraska 7:00 p.m. FS1
Sept. 28th, Saturday @ Vanderbilt TBD TBA
Oct. 5th, Saturday vs Ball State TBD TBA
Oct. 12th, Saturday @ Ohio University 2:30 p.m. TBA
Oct. 19th, Saturday @ Miami University 1:30 p.m. TBA
Oct. 26th, Saturday vs Akron 2:30 p.m. TBA
Nov. 2nd, Saturday @ Central Michigan TBD TBA
Nov. 13th, Wednesday @ Toledo 7:00 p.m. ESPN2 or ESPNU
Nov. 19th, Tuesday vs Eastern Michigan 6:30 p.m. ESPN2 or ESPNU
Nov. 26th, Tuesday vs Western Michigan 6:00 p.m. ESPNU or ESPN 3/+

Five Games to Watch

1. September 7th @ Utah Utes

The Utes were able to sneak past NIU at Huskie Stadium last year. The game was close all night and the Huskies had a chance to win late but a Utah pick-six in the final three minutes of the game sealed the deal, giving the Utes a 17-6 win. The Huskies will be looking to return the favor this year and win in Utah for the second straight year (they upset BYU in Provo last season).

2. September 28th @ Vanderbilt Commodores

I was debating between this game and the game against Nebraska...but, after much thought, I think this is going to be the better/closer game.

The Huskies and Commodores have met three times before (all in the 1990s) with every game being a very close and usually within a possession. With the rise of the Huskies as a dominant mid-major program and the Commodores being a lower-tier, but solid, SEC team, this game should be close and should be a great/fun game to watch.

3. October 12th @ Ohio Bobcats

NIU snuck by Ohio last year scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns on their way to a 24-21 win. The Bobcats are always a contender and projected to win the East again this season. NIU will have a tough test with Nathan Rourke coming back for his final season...this could be an early MAC Championship preview if all goes right for both teams.

4. November 13th @ Toledo Rockets

The Rockets and Huskies has vied for the top spot in the MAC West for most of the past decade. In fact, the winner of this game has represented the West in the MAC Championship Game every year since 2010, with the exception of 2016 (when the WMU Broncos won the division). This is cant miss mid-November, midweek MACtion!

5. November 26th vs Western Michigan Broncos

Just two weeks after Toledo, the Huskies’ season finale is another key match up in the West; this time against the Broncos. This is likely the game that will determine who represents the West in MAC Championship Game. WMU is projected to win the West over the Huskies and Toledo but an NIU win here could send the Huskies to Detroit once again. Luckily NIU is at home for this pivotal game.

Four Players to Watch

1. Antonio Jones-Davies, LB, SR

While Sutton Smith got all the recognition, it was actually Jones-Davies that led the Huskies in tackles last year. Just look at the stats AJD compiled last year - 130 tackles, 14.5 TFL, six pass breakups, four sacks, and two fumble recoveries. He was a first-team All-MAC player last year and most likely will be again this season.

2. Kyle Pugh, LB, SR

Pugh, like Jones-Davies, put together a very solid 2018 campaign but was somewhat forgotten about with all the hype surrounding Smith. Pugh, a second-team All-MAC player, was the only other Huskie to hit triple digits in tackles; netting 106 stops, five TFL, four quarterback hurries, two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups, and 1.5 sacks.

3. Tre Harbison, RB, JR

Another second-team All-MAC selection, Harbison just passed the 1000 yard rushing mark last year. He was able to average 5.0 yards per carry on his way to 1034 yards and five TDs (the most among NIU tailbacks last season). With Hammock’s tutelage and potential new offense, Harbison is primed to have a breakout season in 2019.

4. Spencer Tears, WR, SR

Tears is the Huskies leading returner from a season ago. Last year he was third on the team with 40 receptions and 422 yards while his four receiving TDs was good enough for second on the team. Look for the 6’1 wide out to become the go-to receiver for the Huskies’ signal caller in 2019.

You’ll notice I don’t have a quarterback in this category...because we just *might* have a good ol’ fashioned QB battle on our hands!

Three Things to Watch For

1. Quarterback battle between Childers and Bowers?

As I said...we may just have another quarterback battle in DeKalb.

Junior Marcus Childers has led the team the past two seasons but has struggled with his consistency and turnovers, throwing ten interceptions last year. Enter senior graduate transfer Ross Bowers.

Bowers comes to NIU from the Cal Golden Bears, where he started all 12 games in 2017 and the first half of Cal’s first game last year. During his time in Berkeley he completed 58.5% of his passes (280/478) for 3095 yards, and threw 18 touchdowns to 12 interceptions. He does have three rushing touchdowns and can make some nice moves to extend plays but, unlike Childers who scrambles well, Bowers is not much of a rushing threat - having 60 attempts for -142 yards (although that number includes sacks).

As of June 10th, it looks like Childers is still getting the nod to start, but week one’s kickoff is still six weeks we’ll just have to wait a little while longer to hear who gets the nod or even if the duo will split time.

But a potential new quarterback isn’t the only change the Huskies will see on offense...

2. Thomas Hammock’s new offensive scheme

Hammock has never been a head coach, so we don’t quite know what scheme he’ll run yet. But he knows what it takes to win, especially at NIU, where he won as a player (1999-2002) and an assistant coach (2005-2006).

While not much has been said about what to expect from his offense yet, we’ll most likely see big changes (and hopefully some improvements) to the running game.

As a former halfback himself and a long-tenured running backs coach, Hammock has been in charge of some high-powered rushing attacks at NIU, Wisconsin, and even in the NFL. The Baltimore Ravens were 30th in the NFL the year before Hammock arrived and, when he left last year, the Ravens finished with the second most rushing yards and most rushing TDs in the NFL.

He’ll need to turn this Huskies offense around too. NIU has long been known as a great running school but last season they only averaged 166.9 yards per game, 3.9 yards per carry, and managed just 17 rushing TDs (only three MAC schools had less than NIU).

And, hopefully, an improved rushing attack will lead to a more consistent/much improved passing attack.

3. Just how good will this defense be without Sutton Smith?

The past two seasons, NIU was led defensive end, and now-Pittsburgh Steeler, Sutton Smith. Smith led the nation in sacks and tackles for loss in both 2017 and 2018. And when he was quiet, it was Josh Corcoran on the other side that made an impact.

Unfortunately, both players are gone in 2019 and NIU will look to different players to pick up the lost production.

However, the Huskies return a very solid core. Seven starters, including their four leading tacklers from last year, will return for the 2019 season. According to Athlon, NIU still has the best defensive line and linebacker units in the MAC and the fifth best secondary in the conference.

Senior linebackers Antonio Jones-Davies and Kyle Pugh will most likely be the leaders of this squad. Despite both having an amazing season last year, Jones-Davies and Pugh were somewhat overshadowed by Smith’s performance. I mean, just go back up and take one more look at their stats from 2018! Between them, the Huskies certainly have a great duo at linebacker.

So, while there may be some drop-off from last years’ numbers (which was one of the best defenses the Huskies have ever put together), it shouldn’t be too steep of a drop.

Two Bold Predictions

1. NIU will start the season 2-2 (or better)

My first big, bold prediction is that the Huskies will enter conference play at .500 or, hopefully even better.

NIU starts out at home against FCS foe, and in-state rival, Illinois State which should get the Hammock Era off to a perfect start. But from there the schedule take a U-turn as they travel three consecutive weeks to Utah, Nebraska, and Vandy.

I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for the Huskies to shock any one of those teams. Nebraska will certainly be looking for revenge after the Huskies upset them in 2017, so I think they’ll be gunning for NIU this year...but the other two teams might not know what to expect from NIU’s new look, making an upset certainly possible.

2. NIU gets back to Detroit...again

Before the season begins, the MAC West seems to be a three team race between NIU, Toledo, and WMU.

Of those three, Toledo has the easiest road to the MACCG, getting NIU and Western at home all while playing the easiest cross-over schedule of the trio (at Bowling Green, at Buffalo, and home Kent State). Western has the hardest, going to DeKalb and Toledo and then having to play Miami and at Ohio in their crossover games.

If the Huskies can win their two toughest MAC road games (Ohio and Toledo), which their hellish non-conference slate should prepare them well for, NIU would once again be in the driver’s seat to Detroit come December and just need that home win against Western in the season finale.

One Last Thought...

My final prediction for this years’ team is going to be quite optimistic. I like the hiring of Hammock and can’t wait to see what he brings to the table...especially on the recruiting side of things.

With former-OC Mike Uremovich following Rod Carey to Temple and Hammock bringing former South Dakota State coach, Eric Eidsness, in to fill the position, the Huskies offense should be on the mend and much more efficient this season.

Defensively the Huskies might be a little less effective than they were last season but with a bunch of returning stars, there shouldn’t be too much slippage.

I could see the Huskies running through the MAC again this year, going 6-2 or even 7-1. If my bold prediction of two non-conference wins comes true (fingers crosses), that would put the Huskies at 8-4 or 9-3.

Realistically, 7-5 is a solid guess and should be enough to get them to another bowl game. But, as I said, I have a good feeling about this year’s team and think 8-4 with another appearance in MAC title game is certainly within reach.