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2021 MAC Football Week 3 Game Preview: NIU Huskies at #25 Michigan Wolverines

NIU faces their toughest challenge of the season as they head north to take on the Michigan Wolverines

Northern Illinois v Michigan Photo by Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies have their work cut out for them this week as they head up to Ann Arbor, Michigan to face the 25th-ranked Michigan Wolverines.

For the Huskies, this will be the 35th time they face off against a ranked opponent since joining the FBS back in 1968. NIU is 6-28 in the previous 34 games and hasn’t upset a ranked foe since 2015, when they downed the 24th-ranked Toledo Rockets. NIU does hold the NCAA record for largest margin of victory against a ranked team: they destroyed #23 Fresno State 73-18 back in 1990.

This will be the second time the Wolverines take on a MAC school this season (they beat WMU 47-14 in Week 1) and the second consecutive week they play the Huskies at home, as UM defeated the Washington Huskies 31-10 at home last Saturday.


Game Info

When: Saturday, September 18th at 12:00 p.m (11:00 a.m. CST)
Where: Michigan Stadium — Ann Arbor, MI
Watch: B1G Network
Weather: Mid 70s and partially cloudy
Odds: Michigan is favored by 27.5 points and has a 94.9% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI


Garrett Wolfe was the star of the Huskies when these two teams met last. And, despite NIU nearly being doubling up on the scoreboard, Wolfe had a pretty solid game for NIU; rushing for 148 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries.


The Wolverines (2-0)

Quick Facts:
Last week: 31-10 win over Washington Huskies
Head Coach: Jim Harbaugh (7th season, 51-22)
Offense: Pro-style, Spread
Defense: Multiple

Offense:

The Wolverines lost star wide receiver Ronnie Bell for the season in their opener against WMU but, even without him, they still have a slew of offensive talent that will give the young Huskie defense fits all day.

Last week UM showed that they don’t need to pass to move the ball. Michigan ran the ball 56 times for an astounding 343 yards against Washington (6.1 yards/carry). And it begins with the two-headed monster they have in the backfield.

Running backs Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins both have over 200 yards on the season already. Corum leads the team with 282 yards and four touchdowns on his 35 carries (8.1 yards/rush!!). And Haskins is not far behind, with 40 attempts netting 225 yards and two scores (5.6 yards/carry).

Quarterback Cade McNamara has been real solid on the few occasions he has been called upon to throw the ball. He’s connecting on 61.5% of his passes (16/26) and has 180 yards and two touchdowns. Backup QB, J.J. McCarthy, also has a handful of attempts, completing four of his six throws and adding 80 yards and a score.

No Michigan receiver has hit the 100-yard mark yet and, despite not playing the last six quarters of Wolverine football, Ronnie Bell is still the team leader in receiving yardage...he has one catch for 76 yards. Daylen Baldwin is second with 69 yards (also just one reception). In fact, 54% of Michigan’s receiving yards have come on those two grabs. Cornelius Johnson sits third on the team, with 48 yards on his three catches. Corum (5 catches, 33 yards) and tight end Erick All (3 catches, 23 yards) are the only other players with more than 20 receiving yards.

Defense:

Michigan’s defense has played really well so far. They’re only allowing 12 points and 330 yards per game. Opponents are also converting just 44% of their third-downs (15/34) and are just one for four on fourth down.

Linebacker Josh Ross and defensive back Daxton Hill have been everywhere it seems. Ross leads the team in tackles (17) and QB hurries (5) and also has 1.5 TFL and a pass break up. Hill has 12 stops and a pass break up to go along with .5 TFL.

Up front Aidan Hutchinson has been unstoppable. The 6-6, 265 pound defensive end has seven total tackles, three of the five Wolverine sacks, two QB hurries, and forced a fumble. His three TFL also leads the team.

The secondary is full of talent and their defensive backs have already amassed 15 pass break ups (NIU only has six). Defensive backs Brad Hawkins and Vincent Gray have mirrored each others stats; each has seven tackles (six unassisted) and three PBU. All in all, eight Wolverines have recorded a PBU so far this season.


The Huskies (1-1)

NIU still comes in to this game as an enigma. The defense has shown they can stop P5 teams at times but then also struggle and give up 50 points. On offense they can move the ball real well and real fast...or they can be stopped three straight possessions without even getting a first down. There hasn’t been any consistency to the Huskies on either side of the ball.

Penalties have been a big problem for NIU. They had 11 against Georgia Tech and five last week, giving opponents 132 free yards and negating what would have been two additional turnovers.

Last week against Wyoming, NIU showed they never quit and that, should they start to click, they’re a very dangerous team. After trailing 42-16, the Huskies made a furious comeback - getting sacks, forcing fumbles, and moving the ball at lightning speed to a tune of 27 points in just 14 minutes - including a pair of touchdowns from Harrison Waylee just 13 seconds apart.

Offense:

Waylee has been a bright spot for the Huskies all season long. The freshman running back is third in the NCAA in rushing yards (323) and yards after contact (224). He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry and has three scores, including a 75-yard scamper last week. Clint Ratkovich has also been an asset on the ground for NIU. The transfer has added 76 yards and three TDs on his 13 carries. He also has a receiving touchdown as well.

Some good news for the Huskie offense is that their quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, is familiar with Michigan already. Lombardi, a former Michigan State Spartan, played UM last year and led MSU to a 27-24 victory after throwing for 323 yards and three TDs in the game.

Last week he struggled in the first half and threw three interceptions against the Cowboys but, so far, on the season he’s completing 56.6% of his passes (30/53) and has 369 yards and a trio of touchdowns.

As expected Tyrice Richie and Cole Tucker, the lone upper-classmen in the receiving corp, are his two favorite targets. Richie has eight grabs for 110 yards while Tucker has seven catches and 83 yards. Trayvon Rudolph sits in third place with a pair of grabs for 65 yards, including a 40-yard TD bomb last week...the longest passing play so far this season.

Defense:

NIU’s defense has swarmed defenders, leading to the Huskies already having six players with double-digits in tackles. Sadly, though, many times this has been because the defender couldn’t bring down the opponent on their own and needed backup.

However, Lance Deveaux Jr. who has led the charge all season long. He leads the team in total stops (21) and TFL (3) and has added a QB hurry as well.

Linebackers Nick Rattin & Daveren Rayner and defensive backs Eric Rogers & C.J. Brown each have 13+ tackles, with Rattin sitting in second place with 16 total stops and leading the team with four QBH. Rayner has also added a sack and a TFL while Rogers has recovered a fumble.

NIU has forced five turnovers in their first two games (three INT, two fumbles) but is still giving up 412 yards and 35.5 points per game.


Prediction

The Wolverines shouldn’t have any problem pushing the younger, smaller Huskie defense around. The NIU offense is good enough to move the ball some and get a couple scores but, overall, they most likely won’t have enough to keep this game close.

If the Huskies are to keep it reasonable, they’ll need their defense to stop the run...which is something no one has been able to do this season. Haskins and Corum might be slowed down in the first half some but, by the second half, I expect them to start churning out more and more yardage which will allow Michigan to pull away even more.

This is good test for NIU to grow and get better but the Wolverines should take this one comfortably.

(Here’s to hoping for a better showing than WMU had a few weeks ago and to covering the spread!)

NIU - 17
MICHIGAN - 42