Not many people expected much from the Northern Illinois Huskies in 2021. However, after the Huskies upset Georgia Tech in week one, a lot of people thought maybe there was something here...
And then came the games against Wyoming and Michigan.
After the first three games of 2021, a few thing have begun to stand out:
The Huskie defense is bad...very bad.
NIU might have won their season opener against GT but they were still out-gained heftily, 429-301. They allowed Wyoming to net 395 yards and score 50 points. And then last week they allowed 606 yards, including 373 on the ground, in the 63-10 loss.
Michigan had FOUR touchdown drives that lasted three plays or less! And three of those drives were ended by a 50+ yard play. An 87-yard touchdown pass. A three-play, 70-yard drive capped by a 51-yard TD run. And two-play, 76-yard drive that ended with a 58-yard TD scamper.
It’s not just that the passing defense has been lacking or that the rushing defense that needs some work...it’s that both have struggled this season.
NIU is allowing a ridiculous 476.7 yards per game...only NINE schools are worse than that. The Huskies are also allowing 44.7 points per game and that ranks them 127th out of the 130 teams in the FBS.
On the ground the Huskies opponents are netting 278.3 yards per game - dead last in the NCAA - a whole five yards worse than the 129th team, the Charlotte 49ers. Teams are also averaging a scary 5.8 yards per carry.
Against the pass, NIU is only giving up 198.3 yards per game but, since they have played a trio of run-heavy teams, that’s still not that great. In fact, NIU’s opponents have averaged nearly 15 yards per reception and just under nine yards per attempt! So if you throw against NIU, odds are you’ll get a first down or be damn close to the marker.
NIU needs to be more disciplined
It’s not just that the Huskies defense has given up a bunch of yards during plays but they’ve also given up a bunch of free yardage via penalties.
The Huskies have already been flagged for 22 infractions that have equated to 189 yards. Their 7.33 fouls per game is tied for 95th in the NCAA and the 63 yards per game is not much better, ranking the Huskies 93rd in the NCAA.
And those numbers have gotten worse over Hammock’s tenure. In 2019, his first season at the helm, NIU averaged 5.16 fouls and 44.9 yards per game. Last season the Huskies were flagged 6.8 times per game (96th in the NCAA) for a total of 67.8 penalty yards per game (110th in the NCAA).
Many of those fouls have been pre-snap for the Huskies, with numerous illegal shifts, illegal formations, and false starts backing up the Huskie offense.
If NIU is going to win close games, they have to stop shooting themselves in the foot. Their 11 infractions against Georgia Tech allowed the Yellow Jackets to erase a 14 point deficit and nearly cost the Huskies the game. If the trend continues, those close MAC games will continue to not go NIU’s way.
Hammock is WAAAAYY too conservative on offense
Hammock’s offense has been a little frustrating to watch so far. The Huskies have tried time and time again to establish a ground game but, for the most part, the Huskies have yet to find much on the ground.
Sure, Harrison Waylee has done pretty well...but he has relied on a two chunk plays to really bump up his numbers. Nearly a third of his rushing yards - 110 of his 357 yards - have come from just two plays, a 75-yard run and a 35-yard run.
Hammock’s attempts to keep pounding the ball, instead of letting his former B1G quarterback throw the ball, has hampered the offense and allowed the opposing teams to take the lead AND grow the lead. NIU has now trailed by 25+ points in each of the last two games.
And, when Hammock finally makes the choice to actually throw the ball, it’s been when the defense knows it’s coming and, more often than not, Lombardi has to check it down to his halfback or to a player nowhere near the first down marker.
Lombardi was only allowed 17 passing attempts in the games against GT and Michigan. Against Wyoming he had 36 passing attempts. In two of those games, NIU averaged just 16 points. In the third game, NIU scored 43 points...
Maybe it’s time for NIU to throw the ball in order to set up the run, rather than the other way around...which clearly hasn’t resulted in much sustained offensive success.
Six three-and-outs against Georgia Tech. Two against Wyoming. Five against Michigan.
I know the ground game has been the bread and butter for NIU for a long time. And Hammock wants to continue that storied history...but he has a quarterback that has the ability to make good throws down field if they’d just open up the playbook and try it.
I’d rather see more possessions where the Huskies took a couple shots passing the ball instead of seeing three straight runs of 2-yards lead to a punt.