The Northern Illinois Huskies were able to start off on the right foot, winning their season opener for the first time since 2015. But it was a close game throughout against in-state rival, and FCS squad, Illinois State.
Here’s our five biggest takeaways from the game:
1. Hammock’s offense wasn’t as run-heavy as we thought it’d be
Most of us thought we’d see a heavy dose of running plays as NIU’s new head coach was a former running back and running backs coach. But, instead, we saw a very balanced attack as quarterback Ross Bowers threw the ball 33 times and the Huskies ran the ball 35 times (which does includes a few scrambles/sacks that Bowers had).
Bowers netted nearly 300 yards in the air and threw for both of NIU’s offensive touchdowns, while the run game struggled some - gaining just 93 yards on 32 attempts (not including the three kneel downs to end the game, which actually gave NIU 90 yards on 35 attempts).
2. Defense was a bit of a mixed bag
Once again the Huskies found themselves in a close battle late. And, once again, it was a huge play on defense that saved them. With just over two minutes to play in a one-possession game, sophomore cornerback Jalen McKie snagged his third career interception and returned it 32-yards for a touchdown.
Up front, the Huskies were able to smother an FCS All-American, holding James Robinson to just 16 yards on 13 carries and ISU, as a whole, managed just 51 yards on 28 rushes (1.8 yards per carry).
But, while stopping the run was successful, NIU wasn’t able to get much pressure on the quarterback. On Brady Davis’ 40 drop-backs, the Huskies were only able to get one QB Hurry, one sack, and allowed him to scramble for yardage six times.
The pressure needs to be there if NIU has any chance of upsetting Utah, Nebraska, or Vanderbilt.
3. Bowers can give NIU a solid passing game
Since Chandler Harnish left NIU, most Huskie quarterbacks have relied more on their feet and short check-downs to gain yards rather than using their arm. Bowers could change that this year.
He was able to complete 60.6% of his passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns. He did throw one interception on a deep bomb near the end of the first half but, all-in-all, he looked solid in his debut. Especially in the second half. We’ll see if he and his receivers can get into more of a rhythm as the year goes on and, if they do, the Huskies could have a legit passing attack once again.
4. The O-line needs to play better
The Huskies have been known for having a solid offensive line over the years. However, they looked very porous in this match up...Bowers was sacked twice, including on the Huskies’ first play of the game, and the Redbirds had seven tackles in the backfield. The running game struggled outside of Harbison and Bowers didn’t have a lot of time when he was getting protection.
If the line can’t protect better...it doesn’t bode well for NIU’s upcoming games against teams from the PAC12, B1G, and SEC.
5. NIU’s rushing attack looked very average
Due to the offensive line’s mediocre play, the Huskies were never able to get anything going on the ground. NIU averaged a mere 2.6 yards per carry against an FCS squad and backup halfbacks Jordan Nettles and Marcus Jones each had just two yards rushing on their two carries. Tre Harbison was able to do most of the damage, finding his way to 99 yards on 23 carries, but it took a long time for him (and the offense in general) to get anything going.
The Huskies are back in action next Saturday, September 7, when they travel to Salt Lake City to take on the Utah Utes at 12:00 p.m. CST. You can watch the game on the PAC12 Network.