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2019 MAC Football Report Card: Northern Illinois Huskies

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Grading the Huskies’ first season under Thomas Hammock

Illustration/Photos: James H. Jimenez

The Northern Illinois Huskies’ 2019 season began with high hopes after Rod Carey’s vacancy was filled by Huskie alum, and former NFL coach, Thomas Hammock.

However, after 12 weeks of up-and-down play, they finished the season at 5-7 (4-4 MAC). Their 4th place finish in the West was their lowest since 2008.

NIU 2019 Schedule and Results

Date Opponent Result
Date Opponent Result
Aug. 31st, Saturday vs Illinois State W 24-10
Sept. 7th, Saturday @ Utah L 35-17
Sept. 14th, Saturday @ Nebraska L 44-8
Sept. 28th, Saturday @ Vanderbilt L 24-18
Oct. 5th, Saturday vs Ball State L 27-20
Oct. 12th, Saturday @ Ohio University W 39-36
Oct. 19th, Saturday @ Miami University L 27-24
Oct. 26th, Saturday vs Akron W 49-0
Nov. 2nd, Saturday @ Central Michigan L 48-10
Nov. 13th, Wednesday @ Toledo W 31-28
Nov. 19th, Tuesday vs Eastern Michigan L 45-17
Nov. 26th, Tuesday vs Western Michigan W 17-14

We never knew what we would get from week to week, sometimes even quarter to quarter, with the Huskies this year. NIU was able to hang with #13 Utah for a while and beat top-tier MAC squads like Ohio and Western Michigan... but they also got blown out by EMU and CMU, while letting a double-digit lead slip away against Ball State.


The Offense

Passing attack:

Transfer QB Ross Bowers certainly showed he has the ability to beat MAC defenses (if he can stay healthy), as he tallied 2,130 yards and seven touchdowns. But a porous line and playing from behind a lot made him force throws and that resulted in eight interceptions. Marcus Childers, who really used his legs more than his arm, was able to add 474 yards and six touchdowns in his backup role.

Tight ends Daniel Crawford and Mitchell Brinkman had great seasons, as did receivers Cole Tucker and Tyrice Richie. Each of the four had over 400 yards, with Tuckers’ 531 leading all receivers.

It was certainly an improvement from last year’s offense but still not very effective. C-

Rushing attack:

Tre Harbison won’t be returning in 2020, as he’s set to succeed Benny LeMay at Charlotte. But, in 2019, once MAC play started he was hard to stop. Harbison finished with 1,021 yards and eight touchdowns, notching a season-high of 168 yards against Toledo. Childers was the Huskies’ second leading rusher, with just 366 yards and five touchdowns, while Jordan Nettles had 67 carries for 274 yards.

However, despite Harbison and Childers’ contributions, NIU averaged just 141 yards per game and was 10th in the MAC in rushing yards and in the bottom 40 of all FBS teams. D

OVERALL:

The Huskies finished 79th in the NCAA in passing offense, 92nd in rushing offense, were 103rd in scoring offense (22.8 points per game), and 104th in total offense. With those numbers, it’s amazing they won five games.


The Defense

Secondary:

NIU’s secondary was actually not too terrible. They only gave up 208.6 yards per game through the air, which ranked them 39th in the nation and fourth in the MAC. Yes, they got beat at times and allowed nearly 13 yards per catch, but they did a solid job of stopping opposing offenses when it mattered and only gave up 18 passing TDs. B

Linebackers:

The Huskies came in loaded at the linebacker position. And, if not for a slew of injuries here, the grade would most certainly be an “A”... but, midway through the year, the Huskies were without all three of their starting linebackers.

Using a crew of backups, the Huskies did better than expected here, albeit with growing pains due to inexperience and lack of depth.

Losing Pugh and Jones-Davis was a huge detriment, but Vinny Labus and Jordan Cole certainly stepped up. B-

Defensive Line:

After being spoiled by Sutton Smith for the past few years, NIU was brought back to reality as the Huskies struggled to get any pressure up front this year.

The Huskies only had 14 sacks all season, with the defensive line accounting for just 10 of those. Only seven teams had fewer sacks than NIU (ranking them 123rd in the NCAA)

NIU also had just 61 tackles for loss, which also was near the bottom of the NCAA, at 103rd. It’s hard to win when you can get pressure on opponents offenses. D

OVERALL:

The defense kept NIU in many of the games. They allowed just 28 points per game and were ranked in the middle at stopping the run and were 39th in pass defense.


Special Teams

Kicker:

John Richardson was one of the bright spots for NIU this season. He was a perfect 30/30 on extra points and made 14 of his 18 field goal attempts. He was nearly automatic on kicks under 40 yards, hitting ten of his eleven tries, and was 4/7 on kicks over 40 yards - missing tries of 44, 49, and 50 yards. B+

Punter:

The Huskies punted a lot. 70 times to be exact. Matt Ference attempted 66 of those 70. He averaged 43 yards per punt (ranked tied-39th in the NCAA), had 16 kicks go 50+ yards, and had a long of 63. Only 19 landed inside the 20-yard line and, against Nebraska, he also fumbled a snap and had a punt blocked. B

Kick/Punt Returning:

The Huskies called fair catches on most kickoffs, returning just 12 kicks all season. And, on those dozen returns, they didn’t get much...averaging 11.75 yards per return. That was DEAD LAST in the NCAA by nearly two full yards.

On punts they fared a little better (barely). They had 15 punt returns that went for 83 yards, or an average of 5.53 yards. That ranked them 97th out of the 130 teams. F

OVERALL:

The returns might have been terrible but Richardson and Ference were actually pretty good at their jobs last year...and I’d rather have a great kicker than a good return game.


Coaching

As it’s Hammock’s first season on a team he completely inherited, it’s hard to judge him too harshly. But, from what we saw this season, his play-calling was conservative and seemed to follow Rod Carey’s design at times.

NIU fans were expecting him to come in to DeKalb and kill it in the running game as he did at Wisconsin and with the Baltimore Ravens...but, even with a proven halfback in Harbison, that didn’t happen and the Huskies struggled to move the ball on the ground.

We’ll see if his play-calling and strategy change once he gets his own players in his system or if it will stay similar to this season’s.

But, all that said, he seems to be recruiting well and looking to bring in better talent than Carey did. But we’ll have to wait to see if he can get that talent to DeKalb and how he can coach/mold it.

OVERALL:

This season, Hammock’s coaching was very middle-of-the-road. He gets the “+” for recruiting well.


Overall average:

A “C” grade is perhaps the most unsurpising grade NIU could have gotten this season, given their performance.

The first year under a new coaching staff which is still getting its feet wet, an offense in transition and a defense which lost the war of attrition will usually mean a losing record, and that’s definitely the case here. While NIU fans might be disappointed by how the season turned out, there’s a lot of good to take away from the Huskies in 2019, and that shouldn’t discount just how competitive the Huskies were come MAC play.

A 4-4 record in-conference was certainly better than a handful of teams with better overall records (such as Eastern Michigan.) A solid recruiting class, combined with a lot of potential from returnees gives NIU an optimistic look into the future.