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2021 MAC Football Championship Game Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies

NIU defied the odds, created their own luck, and got back to Detroit after missing the MACCG in 2019 and 2020.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 NIU at Georgia Tech Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies (8-4, 6-2 MAC) are less than a calendar year removed from a winless season, with all six of their losses coming at the hands of MAC opponents.

Fast-forward eleven months and that very same team has chance to make history on Saturday. No team has ever gone winless one season and won the conference championship the very next year. In fact, they’re one of just a handful of FBS teams (which includes the 2010 Miami RedHawks and the 2019 CMU Chippewas) to ever even get to the title game a year removed from a winless or 1-win season.

So how did the Huskies get here?


The Journey

It has truly been a magical journey for the Huskies. Seven of their eight wins came in one-score games with an unprecedented FIVE wins coming down to the wire...NIU won five games on drives that finished with a score coming in the final minute/OT.

NIU started off their campaign with a tough road match up against an ACC foe, Georgia Tech. The Huskies looked great early on, building a 14-0 lead early on in the second quarter. However, right before the half, the Yellow Jackets were able to find the endzone, giving GT the momentum into the break. Georgia Tech would score twice more in the fourth quarter, giving them a 21-14 lead.

With under two minutes to go, the Huskies got the ball back and quarterback Rocky Lombardi would lead them on a thrilling drive. With just 38 seconds remaining Lombardi found Clint Ratkovich out of the backfield for a 3-yard TD pass that would bring NIU within a single point. Coach Hammock didn’t hesitate at all and kept the offense out there for the 2-point conversion. Lombardi rolled out, directed his receiver back, and fired a strike to Tyrice Richie to give NIU a 22-21 lead. The Huskies would seal the deal when the defense blocked a 60-yard field goal as time expired.

The next week they faced the Wyoming Cowboys at home and quickly showed how tenacious this team could be. After a couple first half turnovers, NIU found themselves down 42-16 with just over six minutes to go in the third quarter. The team didn’t quit and rallied back to score 27 unanswered points in just 16:07 of game time - taking a 43-42 lead with less than five minutes remaining. However, Wyoming would find the endzone one last time and then shut down the NIU offense to claim a 50-43 victory.

From there the Huskies would play two of their three games that weren’t decided by a single score. They dropped to 1-2 when the Michigan Wolverines manhandled them on their way to a 63-10 beat down of the Huskies, out-gaining NIU 606-208. Northern would get back to .500 the very next week by beating the Maine Black Bears, out of the FCS rankings, by a score of 41-14. It would be their first of five straight wins.

NIU started MAC play with a game against Eastern Michigan. The Huskies got out to a fast start, going up 10-0, before a three hour rain delay put a damper on things. However, on the second play back, the Huskies snagged a pick-six to go up 17-0. EMU would keep it close, out-scoring NIU 17-7 over a 13 minutes span. However, the Huskie defense would hold steady and the teams would trade field goals in the fourth quarter, as the Huskies went on to win 27-20.

Against Toledo it was the special teams that won the day. NIU was only able to score one touchdown all game, a 37-yard run by Antario Brown, but held the Rockets to just three scores themselves. Sophomore kicker John Richardson would make the most of his time as he drilled five field goals, including the game winner with 26 seconds remaining, to give the Huskies a 22-20 win.

The Huskies would have no problems getting the lead against Bowling Green, jumping out to a 34-16 lead early in the 4th quarter. However, a late comeback by the Falcons cut the lead to just eight with 6:25 remaining. The Huskie defense would hold them off, allowing NIU to win 34-26, and bringing their record up to 5-2, with a 3-0 record in MAC play.

NIU’s fifth straight victory would come against CMU. The Huskies would once again need some big special teams plays to get to the win. Central jumped out to a 28-10 lead midway through the second quarter but the Huskies would once again show their resiliency, battling all the way back and scoring three TDs, including a pair of Trayvon Rudolph receptions, and taking a 36-35 lead with 10 minutes to go. CMU would retake the lead 38-36 with just over six minutes left on the clock but the Huskies backup kicker, freshman Kanon Woodill, nailed a 26-yard attempt to put NIU back on top, 39-38, with under a minute to go. The Chips would drive down the field and set up a game winning FG attempt. The snap hit the ground and bounced past the holder, giving NIU yet another miracle finish.

Kent State would host the Huskies ten days later to start Midweek MACtion. And, despite breaking a slew of school records, the Golden Flashes were able to hold off another Huskie comeback and win the game 52-47. Lombardi was able to throw for 532 yards (an NIU record) and Rudolph was the recipient of most of his throws, catching 14 passes for a MAC record (and school record) 309 yards and three TDs.

Northern would bounce back the next week in the Battle for the Bronze Stalk, in yet another nail biter. Ball State jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter but, by halftime, NIU had evened things up at 17 apiece. The Cardinals would once again claim a two-score lead after a safety and TD put them up 26-17. The Huskies would score the next ten points and take a 27-26 lead late in the fourth quarter before BSU kicked a 48-yard FG and held a 29-27 lead with 1:42 remaining. That was too much time for the Huskies, who were able to drive down the field and set up a Richardson kick from the 15-yard line. His first 32-yard try went wide right but, luckily, the Cardinals called a timeout...giving him a second chance. He wouldn’t miss this try as his kick was perfectly centered, giving NIU the 30-29 victory and giving all of us one of the best celebrations of all time.

With NIU now sitting at 5-1 in the MAC (7-3 overall), a ll they needed was a win against Buffalo to clinch the MAC West. As with every game this year, it wouldn’t be easy but the Huskies found a way to win. The Huskies found themselves up 24-10 midway through the third quarter before the Bulls battled back and tied the game, 27-27, with 70 seconds to go. NIU was able to get into field goal range but Richardson couldn’t repeat his performance, and the game went into overtime after his missed kick. Buffalo gained two first downs and had first and goal from the five yard line when the Huskie defense buckled down. On first down, Buffalo gained three yards. On second down, it looked like the Bulls had scored but, after an official review, the ball carrier’s knee was down short of the goal-line, setting up third down at the half-yard line. On third down, Buffalo’s quarterback fumbled the snap and the Huskies recovered it in the endzone, giving them the ball and needing only a field goal to win. Ratkovich had other things in mind, as he took a hand-off on first down and went 25-yards, untouched, to the endzone and sealed the deal for the Huskies. The 33-27 win clinched the MAC West for NIU.

In the season finale against WMU, the Huskies sat some key players, including Lombardi, opting for rest and recovery for the MAC Championship Game. Without their key offensive players, the Broncos were able to double up the Huskies and win 42-21.

The Huskies finished 8-4, 6-2 in the MAC, and had a 5-1 record against the same six teams they lost to last year.


Players to watch

On offense the Huskies have a slew of young talent and a pair tough, competitive leaders.

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi is a tough player and fierce competitor. He can use his legs in certain situations and, because of that, he is second on the team in rushing touchdowns, with five. He also is the first NIU quarterback to throw for 2,300 yards in seven years, as Drew Hare did it last back in 2014. On the season he has 2314 passing yards, 390 rushing yards, 18 total touchdowns (13 passing, five rushing), and has thrown seven interceptions and been sacked just seven times.

NIU has a handful of running backs that can hurt you. Jay Ducker has been getting the bulk of the carries as of late and leads the Huskies with 892 rushing yards. If it’s not Ducker, it’ll be Ratkovich or Antario Brown taking the hand-offs. Ratkovich leads the team in touchdowns, with 11, but Brown has the best average per carry, as he is netting 6.5 yards per rush (358 yards on 55 carries).

Wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph has been stellar this season. The freshman 827 yards and seven touchdowns on his 46 catches. He also has five rushes for 106 yards and a touchdown and has scored on a kickoff return as well, taking a kickoff 100-yards to the house against Bowling Green. He has scored 56 points for NIU this season (nine TDs and a 2-pt conversion), which is third on the team behind Richardson (86) and Ratkovich (78).

Defensively C.J. Brown has led the team in tackles all season long. The defensive back now has 94 total tackles and has 2.5 TFL and a QB hurry as well.

A trio of linebackers has also been solid for NIU. The combination of Lance Deveaux Jr., Nick Rattin, and Dillon Thomas sit at #2, #3, and #4 in tackles. Deveaux Jr. has 64 stops, six TFL (team leading), a sack, a forced fumble, and a QBH. Rattin and Thomas each have 59 tackles but Rattin has added six QBH (team high), five TFL, a pass break up, and a forced fumble while Thomas has 5.5 TFL, four QBH, three sacks, and three pass break ups.


Team Statistics

Offense:

  • Passing offense: 178-of-307 (58.0 percent), 2,340 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, 7.62 yards per attempt, 13.15 yards per completion, 195.0 yards per game (t-98th in FBS)
  • Rushing offense: 533 carries for 2,781 yards, 29 touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry, 231.3 yards per game on average (5th in FBS)
  • Redzone offense: 40-of-43 (93%); 23 touchdowns (18 rushing, five passing), 17 field goals (6th in FBS)
  • First downs/third-down conversion rates: 264 first downs (145 rush, 99 pass, 20 penalties) (47th in FBS); 60-of-167 (35.9 percent) (94th in FBS)
  • Scoring offense: 30.8 points per game (95th in FBS)

Defense

  • Opponent passing totals: 208-of-352 (59.1 percent), 2,832 yards, 21 touchdowns, 1 interception, 235.1 yards per game on average (77th in FBS)
  • Opponent rushing totals: 456 carries, 2,608 yards, 30 rushing touchdowns, 5.7 yards per attempt, 217.3 yards per game on average (120th in FBS)
  • Sacks/tackles-for-loss: 14 sacks for 84 yards, averaging 1.17 yards per game (t-125th in FBS); 50 tackles-for-loss for an average of 4.17 yards per game (t-123rd in FBS)
  • Redzone defense: 35-of-44 (79.5%), 30 touchdowns (20 rush, 10 pass), five field goals (44th in FBS)
  • First downs/third down conversion rate: 264 first downs (137 rush, 114 pass, 13 penalties) (95th in FBS); 62-of-153 (40.5 percent) on third down (86th in FBS)
  • Scoring defense: 33.5 points per game (t-110th in FBS)