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2022 Non-Conference Opponent Primer: Northern Illinois Huskies

NIU’s non-conference slate features a pair of SEC squads and a tough AAC team.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Kent State vs Northern Illinois Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

After an 0-6 season in 2020, the Northern Illinois Huskies bounced back in 2021, winning nine games - and their fifth MAC Championship - with a roster comprised mostly of underclassmen.

Some may say the Huskies had an aura of destiny (or luck) last season, as ten of NIU’s 14 games finished within one score and the “Heart Attack Huskies” found themselves on the winning side in seven of those ten games.

But now with an added year of experience and growth, and the vast majority of their production returning, NIU will look to continue that success in 2022. But it won’t be easy, as they have a tough away game with an AAC team and a pair of SEC schools on the docket. It will be the first time Northern takes on two SEC teams in a season since 1994, when they faced off against Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

Here’s a way-too-early look at Northern’s non-conference opponents:

Thursday, Sept. 1: Eastern Illinois Panthers at NIU

Eastern Illinois v Indiana Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Panthers are the Huskies’ lone FCS opponent and, conversely, NIU is the only FBS team that EIU will face in 2022.

Historically, the teams’ have a long history of games, as this will be the 39th match up between the schools. NIU holds a 27-10-1 record over the Panthers, including a 12-1-1 record over the last 13 meetings.

And, as a fun fact, EIU is the tenth most common opponent for NIU - only five MAC schools (CMU, EMU, Ball State, Toledo, and WMU), Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Western Illinois, and Wheaton College (who the Huskies haven’t played since 1961) have more all-time meetings. However, the teams have only met twice since 1998 and just five times since 1965.

Eastern, who plays in the Ohio Valley Conference, has had some big names - like Sean Payton, Tony Romo, and Jimmy Garoppolo - come out of Charleston, Illinois. But as of late, the Panthers have, really struggled. Since 2019 the Panthers have won a total of THREE games....1-11 in 2019, 1-5 in 2020, and 1-11 last season.

In 2021, EIU didn’t have a rusher crack 100 yards in any game with their leading rusher only netting 489 yards all season. Their QB play wasn’t much better. Three quaterbacks had more than 50 pass attempts, none of whom completed more than 49% of their passes. The trio also combined for just eight TDs while throwing 17 interceptions and getting sacked a combined 28 times.

However, like the Huskies, EIU’s offense has a lot of young underclassmen playing with two QBs and their leading rusher all being freshmen last season.

While Eastern’s offense might improve some and opening games can be tricky at times, the Huskies shouldn’t have any problems starting 2022 off with a win.

Saturday, Sept. 10: NIU at Tulsa Golden Hurricane

Tulsa v Cincinnati Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The Huskies first away game comes after nine days rest when the team travels down to Oklahoma to take on the Tulsa Golden Hurricane. It will be the first ever meeting between the two teams and just the second time the Huskies have played a team from the Sooner State - losing to Oklahoma State back in 1994.

Tulsa, out of the AAC, finished the 2021 regular season with a record of 6-6 (5-3 AAC). After a slow 1-4 start, the Golden Hurricane split their next four games, getting to 3-6 before ending the the year with four straight wins - three in a row to get them to a bowl game and then a 30-17 victory over Old Dominion in the Myrtle Beach Bowl.

The Golden Hurricane do return their starting quarterback, Davis Brin, who was rather effective in 2021, but they lose their leading rusher, three of their top four receivers and three of their top six tacklers.

Brin started every game for the Hurricane last season, throwing for 3254 yards and 18 TDs with a 59.3% completion rate. But he did throw 16 interceptions and was under pressure a lot, getting sacked 25 times.

Tulsa on returns 32.5% of their receiving production, losing their #1, #3, and #4 receivers. However, they do get JuanCarlos Santana back. The 6’ senior caught 50 passes for 674 yards last season and had three touchdowns.

On the ground, Tulsa will have a pair of backs that each ran for 500+ yards last season - Anthony Watkins and Deneric Prince. Watkins averaged a team-high 7.4 yards per carry and finished with 634 yards and four touchdowns while Prince gained 524 yards (5.2/carry) and scored five times.

Defensively, Tulsa returns their leading tackler - linebacker Justin Wright, who tallied 82 stops, 3.5 sacks (third on the team), forced and recovered a fumble, and had a 55-yard interception return for a TD last season. They also get Anthony Goodlow back, who is a beast up front. He led the team in sacks, with six, and also had 28 total tackles, 7 TFL, two QBH, and a fumble recovery.

On special teams, the Huskies will most likely not get any breaks like the did against GT, CMU, Toledo, the Tulsa kicker, Zack Long, is very, very good. Long hit 35 of 36 extra points and was just as amazing kicking field goals, connecting on 22 of his 23 field goal attempts - only missing a 50-yard attempt against Cincinnati.

This game should be a very close game and one of the best non-conference match ups in the MAC this season. It’s a must-see match up.

Saturday, Sept. 17: Vanderbilt Commodores at NIU

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Missouri at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

NIU is 1-11 against the SEC all-time, only beating Alabama back in 2003. This season, the Huskies will look to end their three game losing streak against the SEC...and they’ll have two chances to do it.

Their first chance is when the Vanderbilt Commodores head to Huskie Stadium on September 17th.

These schools met in Nashville in 2019, Thomas Hammock’s first season at the helm of NIU, with Vandy claiming a close 24-18 win.

This year’s meeting will be the fifth game between the two, with the Commodores holding a 4-0 record. However, every game has been within ten points, three of which were within six points at the end.

Vanderbilt is coming off a 2-10 season, which saw them lose to an FCS squad by 20 points (a 23-3 loss to East Tennessee State) and all eight SEC games. The Commodores are only favored in one of their games this season - as they should beat Elon, an FCS team that went 6-5 last year.

Last year Vandy had two quarterbacks that split time, Ken Seals and Mike Wright. Both of them do return this season but neither really out-shined the other. The duo combined for 2273 yards and 13 touchdowns but threw 14 interceptions, completed 55% of their passes, and were sacked 28 times.

Two of their four leading receivers - Will Sheppard and Devin Boddie Jr. - return in 2022. Sheppard was second on the team last season with 577 yards but was tied for a team-high four touchdowns. Boddie Jr. had 263 yards and a score on his 29 receptions.

The Commodores do return their two leading halfbacks, Rocko Griffin and Patrick Smith. Griffin had 517 yards (3.6/carry) and a team-high four rushing TDs while Smith had 360 yards and one score on his 82 attempts (4.4/carry).

On defense Vandy welcomes back their top four tacklers, linebackers Ethan Barr and Anfernee Orji and defensive backs Max Worship and Jaylen Mahoney. Orji led everyone with 92 stops and 13 TFLs but he also had two QBH, a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass break up. Barr had 85 tackles and was tied for most interceptions, with three, while Worship and Mahoney each had 53 tackles and two picks in their roles as DBs.

Despite better recruiting and some younger players on the Commodores roster, the Huskies should be able to edge out Vandy here and end their four game skid against Vanderbilt.

Saturday, Sept. 24: NIU at Kentucky Wildcats

Vrbo Citrus Bowl - Iowa v Kentucky Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

The Kentucky Wildcats are coming off of one of their best seasons in recent history, going 10-3 (5-3 SEC) last year. And, in week four, they’ll host the NIU Huskies. It will be the first meeting between the two schools.

Kentucky won their first six games of 2021 before dropping three straight to Georgia, Mississippi State, and Tennessee. However, they then bounced back and won their final four games of the year, including a 20-17 win over the 15th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes in the Citrus Bowl.

The Wildcats return their quarterback, Will Levis, who crushed it last season. Levis completed 66% of his throws for 2826 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also squeaked out of pressure well, running for 376 yards (third on the team) and nine TDs (tied for most on the team). However, he was sacked 22 times and threw 13 INTs, so...if you can get to him, he will make some mistakes.

Kentucky also returns their top two halfbacks - Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke. Rodriguez Jr. led the team with 1379 yards on his 225 carries (6.1/carry) and had nine touchdowns. Smoke only had 81 touches but was able to score four touchdowns and gain 416 yards.

The good news, for NIU fans, is that Kentucky losses four of their top five receivers. Their 2021 leader, Wan’Dale Robinson, left for the NFL’s New York Giants (where he’ll join NIU’s Kenny Golladay). Kentucky’s leading returning receiver is tight end Izayah Cummins, who had 14 receptions for 195 yards and three TDs, both of which were third on the team last season.

Their defense should be pretty stacked still, returning a trio of linebackers - Jacquez Jones, DeAndre Square, and J.J. Weaver - that can cause havoc. The duo of Jones and Square combined for 166 tackles, 13 TFL, 6 QBH, five pass break ups, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. But, not to be outdone, J.J. Weaver also made big plays. He led the team with six sacks and also had 34 stops, ten TFLs, four QBH, two interceptions, and forced a fumble.

The Wildcats are favorites here and have a 95.1% chance to win according to ESPN FPI. However, I think the Huskies are vastly underrated on paper and this game could be A LOT closer than most people think.