The Northern Illinois Huskies will take the field for the first time under Coach Thomas Hammock this Saturday evening.
Hammock’s first game will come against the Illinois State Redbirds, who the Huskies have a long history with. NIU has played ISU more times than any other school and this weekend’s contest will be the 57th meeting between the two.
Date/Time: Saturday, August 31st, 6:00 p.m. CST
Where: Huskie Stadium — DeKalb, IL
Odds: NIU is favored by 5.5 points and has a 68.5% chance to win according to ESPN’s FPI
The series began way back in 1906 and has NIU holding on to a slim 25-22-9 advantage. Most of the games were played before either school was promoted to the D-1 ranks but since 1968 (the year NIU became a D-1 program), the teams have met just 13 times.
The schools played every year from 1972 through 1981 before meeting again in 1991 and 1992, and then, most recently, again in 2000 - a game in which the very same Thomas Hammock from above rushed for 140 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 52-0 Huskie victory.
As an FBS team, NIU is 9-4 against ISU and has won six of the last seven, including the last four games - last losing in 1980. The 19-year hiatus is the longest in the series history.
2018 record: 6-5 (3-5 Missouri Valley)
Location: Normal, IL
Head Coach: Brock Spack (10th season, all at ISU), 68-40 overall record
Returning starters: 16
Last season, the Redbirds started off strong before falling apart in the second half of the season and finishing 6-5. After a 5-1 start, ISU dropped four straight before winning their season finale against Youngstown State.
However, Illinois State returns a few key players on offense, including a First-Team All-American.
Senior halfback James Robinson has been racking up accolades at ISU, including making Phil Steele’s FCS First-Team All-American team, being named as a FCS Walter Payton Award finalist, and being a Second Team pick on AFCA’s FCS All-America list.
In 2018 Robinson averaged 6.3 yards per carry on his way to 1290 yards and 12 touchdowns. The year prior he rushed for 933 yards and a dozen touchdowns while averaging 5.7 yards per attempt.
When they don’t give the ball to Robinson, junior quarterback Brady Davis has been solid for ISU. Davis initially signed with the Memphis Tigers and saw action in one game in 2017 before transferring to ISU. Last season he started 10 games, completed 55.9% of his passes, and threw for 1935 yards, 19 touchdowns, and just five interceptions.
Davis’ main target this season will most likely be wide receiver Andrew Edgar. The 6’0 sophomore had an amazing freshman year in 2018 and was one of two Redbird receivers to amass 700+ yards. Last year he was second on the team in receptions (44), receiving yards (746), and touchdowns (4).
Up front, Illinois State has a massive wall of O-Linemen. In fact, three of their starting linemen are listed at 6’5 or taller...including their left tackle, Drew Himmelman, who stands a whopping 6’10.
On defense, they bring back two of their three leading tacklers from last year - seniors defensive back Luther Kirk and senior linebacker Ty DeForest.
Kirk is a monster DB, standing tall at 6’2. Last year had 61 stops (second on the team) and three pass break ups but led ISU with five interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. DeForest, as a junior, racked up 51 tackles, seven QB Hurries, three pass break ups, two TFL, two interceptions, a sack, and also recovered a fumble.
2018 record: 8-6 (6-2 MAC)
Bowl game: Boca Raton Bowl, 37-13 loss to UAB Blazers
Head Coach: Thomas Hammock (first season)
Returning starters: 16 (7 offense, 7 defense, 2 specialists)
Thomas Hammock has been very tight-lipped about how NIU’s offense will look this season. We do know he’ll employ more of a pro-style offense and will most likely take out those QB draw plays in favor of utilizing the running backs more.
But the biggest thing Huskie fans still don’t know is who will be starting at quarterback. The battle between Marcus Childers (who has been the starter for the most of the past two seasons) and Cal transfer Ross Bowers has been a tight race all off-season.
On Tuesday, NIU released their depth chart but added that dreaded “or” between Childers and Bowers, meaning we wont know who won the starting job until the Huskie offense trots out for the first time on Saturday evening.
Junior running back Tre Harbisonw will get the majority of the carries and that’s probably a good thing. Here at Hustle Belt, we ranked Harbison as the 12th best player in the MAC after his explosive sophomore season. Last season he ran for 1034 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.0 yards per carry.
Whoever the Huskies’ quarterback is, they’ll be looking for senior wide out Spencer Tears. Tears was third on the team last year in catches (40) and receiving yards (422) but his four touchdowns trailed only D.J. Brown, who had five.
Other options for the Huskie quarterback include 6’5 sophomore Dennis Robinson, who saw some playing time last year, and transfer Tyrice Richie. Robinson finished 2018 with 139 yards and a TD on 15 receptions while Richie, a junior who transferred from Dodge City Community College, is expected to make an immediate impact for the Huskies in 2019. Last season he had 23 catches, 363 yards, and two scores for Dodge City.
On defense, NIU losses Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran which will certainly hurt some. But the unit as a whole shouldn’t take too much of a step backwards.
They return an amazing group of linebackers that feature Kyle Pugh and Antonio Jones-Davis and, eventually, Lance Deveaux Jr.
ADJ and Pugh led the Huskies in tackles last season with 130 and 106, respectively. ADJ also added 14.5 TFL, six pass break ups, four sacks, and two fumble recoveries while Pugh had five TFL, four QB Hurries, two pass break ups, two fumble recoveries, and 1.5 sacks. Deveaux Jr., who will be out for a few games with an undisclosed injury, was the Huskies fourth leading tackler last year and will look to return soon.
Up front, Jack Heflin (another on HB’s Top-25 countdown) and fellow junior defensie tackle, Weston Kramer, will look to power through those huge offensive linemen and get to James Robinson early and often. In 2018 the duo combined for 71 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, and a blocked kick (by Heflin).
The secondary will look to a pair of senior safeties to stop ISU’s passing attack - Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster. Williams was NIU’s third leading tackler last year, bringing down opponents 75 times. He also had 3.5 TFL, three pass break ups, and two interceptions (tied for most on the team). Foster had 56 tackles, four pass break ups, a TFL, an interception, and forced two fumbles.
Without having seen this new offensive look, it’s hard to tell just how effective the Huskies will be on offense this year...but it certainly can’t be any worse than they were last season.
It’ll be interesting to see how NIU’s new look offense operates and how this defense plays without Sutton Smith wreaking havoc.
So, while the game might actually be a tight contest and closer than most NIU fans think it should be (don’t forget, NIU isn’t even favored by a touchdown!), the Huskies do have the advantage in speed and depth on both sides of the ball.
The Redbirds should do much better this season and have a lot of talent returning (especially on offense), so this game wont be a cakewalk, but the Huskies should be able to start the Hammock era off with a win.
NIU - 31
ISU - 17