The Northern Illinois Huskies start their 2022 campaign on Thursday evening and will look to build off their success from last season.
Northern, who returns the vast majority of their team on both offense and defense, will open the year against one of their oldest rivals - the Eastern Illinois Panthers - a rivalry that dates back nearly 120 years.
When: Thursday, September 1st at 7 p.m. CST
Where: Huskie Stadium — DeKalb, IL
Weather: Low 70s and partly cloudy at kickoff
Odds: NIU has an 96.2% chance of winning according to ESPN’s FPI
Both teams began playing football back in 1899 and it didn’t take long for them to meet on the gridiron, with the Panthers first coming to DeKalb on November 15th, 1902.
Since that 1902 meeting the Huskies and Panthers have met a total of 38 times, with NIU holding a commanding 27-10-1 lead in the series. However, they have rarely seen each other since their 1965 meeting. The teams have only met five times in the past 57 years - 1990, 1994, 1998, 2013, and 2017.
Against the MAC, Eastern has done quite well. Since become a D-1 member in 1981, the Panthers have played 18 games against MAC teams, winning seven - including three wins over Akron.
The Huskies, historically, have done well against the Ohio Valley. They are 32-10-1 against OVC teams, with their only losses coming against Eastern. They are 2-0 verses Murray State and Tennessee Tech, and 1-0 against UT-Martin.
Eastern Illinois has struggled the last few season. Over the last four years the Panthers have not been able get much going, compiling just six total wins since 2018. After a 3-8 in 2018 EIU has only managed to win a single game in each of the last three seasons (1-11 in 2019, 1-5 in 2020, and 1-10 last year).
This year EIU made a coaching change, bringing in Chris Wilkerson. Wilkerson, a former player at Eastern in the early 1990s, compiled a 51-27 record over nine years as the head coach of the University of Chicago, a Division III school.
He’ll inherit a young team that, like NIU last season, will look to be much improved. The roster lists just nine seniors and 17 juniors and a whopping 80 underclassmen - 44 sophomores and 36 freshmen.
Last season they had three players take snaps as a quarterback and just one of those players returns this season - Zach Weir. Weir, a redshirt freshman, went 32-67 and threw for 386 yards with a single touchdown to four interceptions. However, they do have some other options as well.
A pair of transfers will bolster their QB play, with Dom Shoffner and Jonah O’Brien going from the FBS to the FCS this season.
Shoffner, a senior, played at Charlotte but missed all of last season due to an injury. He’s a dual threat quarterback that ran for 101 yards and threw just four passes in 2020. O’Brien initially signed at EIU before transferring to Colorado State in 2020. After sitting out 2020 and only appearing in one game last year, he returned to the Panthers as a redshirt sophomore this year.
On the ground the Panthers also lost two of their three leading rushers from a year ago. Jaelin Benefield is their leading returning rusher. He gained 171 yards on 35 carries last season and had a long of 35 yards.
However, the Huskies also need to prepare for Markenzy Pierre, a senior transfer from Syracuse. Coming out of high school Pierre was rated as the 52nd best running back by ESPN. After four years at Syracuse, he joined EIU last season where he appeared in all eleven games, rushing for 108 yards on 38 carries.
Wide Receiver Isaiah Hill will be a big threat in their aerial attack. Hill, their leading receiver last year, caught 39 passes for 493 yards and two touchdowns. He has also made some preseason watch-lists, and was a second team All-OVC WR last year.
Another big threat in their passing attack will be Ira Armstead II, a Virginia transfer. The former Cavalier played in nine games last season and five the year before. He’s a massive 6-4 and even ran the ball a dozen times last year. Watch for him on jet sweeps and in the redzone.
Tight end Jay Vallie, a grad student, transferred from Dayton in 2020 but missed all of last season due to injury. He’s another big target that the Panthers will be looking to hit in short yard and redzone situations. In the spring 2021 season, he led the team in receptions, with 18, and had three scores and 190 yards.
The Panthers have quite a few playmakers on defense.
Up front Jordan Miles and Tim Varga will look to get pressure in the backfield. Miles, a sophomore defensive end, led the team in Quarterback Hurries (11) and was tied for team lead in sacks (4), tackles for loss (11), and forced fumbles (2). He also blocked a kick, recovered a fumble and tallied 38 tackles on the season. Varga, a junior on their D-line, had 46 tackles last year with six TFL, four sacks, and nine QBH.
Tre’jon Lewis will also be a factor this season up front. Lewis transferred in from Texas Tech. He was a reserve linemen for the Red Raiders last year and played on special teams in 2020.
In the middle, linebackers Colin Bohanek and Foday Jalloh will be roaming the field. Bohanek is the teams leading returning tackler, netting 89 stops last year with 11 TFL, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and a pass break up. Jalloh is yet another transfer for the Panthers. Jalloh joins EIU from Central Connecticut State last season, where he was a four year player. An injury cut short his 2021 season but he led the team in tackles in 2019 with 81.
The strength of this defense, however, is their secondary. The have a handful of dangerous defensive backs that can make plays. Mark Aitken, Elijah Ball, Elijah Benoit, Russell Dandy, and Jordan Vincent will all be in the mix to make plays Thursday night.
Aitken’s name may sound familiar, as he initially signed on with NIU before transferring to EIU after the 2020 season. Last season he played in all 11 games for Eastern, starting eight games, and recording 21 tackles, four pass break ups, 2.5 TFL, and a sack.
The Elijahs - Ball and Benoit - are both transfers. Ball played at Purdue for four years and appeared in 13 games last season for the Boilermakers - mostly on special teams. Benoit started as a Golden Knight at UCF where he saw limited action. He joined EIU last season and played in the first three games before an injury ended his year. In those three games he tallied nine tackles and a pass break up.
Dandy, a senior, started in ten of the eleven games for EIU last season. He had 31 tackles, 2.5 TLF, two interceptions (most on the team), and forced and recovered a fumble.
Vincent, a sophomore, played in both the 2020 and 2021 seasons, starting 16 of the 17 games for Eastern. Last year he was third on the team with 60 tackles and also had three PBU, two forced fumbles, two QBH, and a 51-yard fumble recovery.
Northern Illinois is coming off a 9-5 season that was filled with close games and heart attack inducing moments. But, with some new additions and an extra year of experience under their belt, the Huskies will look to separate themselves in a few more games this season.
The Huskies have plenty of explosive playmakers returning on offense.
Returning is starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi. The former Michigan State Spartan led the Huskies last season, passing for 2597 yards and 15 touchdowns with a 58.3% completion rate. He was only sacked ten times (one of the fewest in the nation) and threw eight interceptions, with three coming in one game. On the ground he was second on the team with nine rushing TDs and fourth in rushing yardage with 473.
Lombardi’s best target, Trayvon Rudolph, will miss the season with a knee injury so Cole Tucker and Shemar Thornton will be the main threats.
Tucker, a senior, had 575 yards and three touchdowns on 41 catches last season. Thornton, a senior transfer from FIU, is poised to break out here in DeKalb. He had 73 catches for 993 yards and nine TDs as an FIU Panther and was the teams leading WR in 2019.
Fabian McCray, Messiah Travis, and Kacper Rutkiewicz are also names to look out for, as well as tight ends Miles Joiner and Liam Soragham.
On the ground the Huskies lose Clint Ratkovich and Jay Ducker, the Freshman of the Year in the MAC, who combined for 1645 yards yards and 16 scores. But they still bring back plenty of firepower.
Antario Brown was just listed as the starter yesterday. Brown added 560 yards and five scores last year as well and averaged a team-leading 6.6 yards per game. Backing him up will be last year’s starter, Harrison Waylee. Waylee, who went down with an injury early on, ran for 595 yards and four TDs in less than five full games. Mason Blakemore will also be in the mix. Blakemore had a handful of carries last year that resulted in 67 yards and a touchdown.
All of this is behind one of the best offensive lines in the MAC - a line that returns four of their five starters. You can read the full write up here. But Marques Cox, J.J. Lippe, Logan Zschernitz, and Nolan Potter all come back with Pete Nygra taking over the duties as center after the loss of Brayden Patton from last year.
NIU also returns all four of their starting D-linemen, with Raishein Thomas, James Ester, Devonte O’Malley, and Michael Kennedy all returning.
Defensive ends Thomas and Kennedy combined for 92 tackles, 6.5 TFL, six QBH, four pass break ups, and a pair of fumble recoveries. O’Malley led the team in sacks, with four, and Ester had five QBH and a blocked kick.
Bolstering the front line will be Wisconsin transfer Izayah Green-May. The 6-6 senior played in nine games for the Badgers last season and played in a dozen games in 2019.
The linebacking corp for the Huskies are led by Daveren Rayner, Nick Rattin and super-super seinor Kyle Pugh.
Rayner had 29 tackles, a TFL, and a sack last season while Rattin was third on team, with 72 tackles, and also had seven TFL, six QBH (most on the team), a sack, and a forced fumble.
Pugh, a long time fan favorite, enters his eighth season at NIU. In his career he now has 186 tackles (96 solo), 12.5 TFL, four PBU, three sacks, three fumble recoveries, and an interception.
The secondary might be NIU’s best asset on defense though.
At cornerback Jordan Gandy returns, as do Javaughn Byrd and Eric Rogers. Gandy was a great playmaker, breaking up ten passes (the most on the team by far), and recording 53 stops, 3.5 TFL, and two fumble recoveries. On the other side, Byrd and Rogers combined for 66 tackles, four pass break ups, and two fumble recoveries.
Safety C.J. Brown, the teams leading tackler a year ago, returns to patrol the deep part of the field. Brown was credited with 109 total tackles last season, the only Huskie in triple digit stops, and four TFL, a PBU, an interception, and a QBH. Opposite him will be Muhammad Jammah with Devin Lafayette and Jordan Hansen playing as well. Jammah played in four games last season to keep his redshirt status and had all eight of his tackles in one game.
Lafayette returns after an injury last year. The freshman had four tackles and a pass breakup in just one half before a leg injury took him out for the rest of the season. Hansen was fifth on the team, amassing 58 stops, five pass break ups, three TFL, and a forced fumble.
While Eastern Illinois should be a much improved team from the last few year, the Huskies should still be able to handle the Panthers here.
With all their transfers and new additions, EIU might be able to make some plays and keep it from becoming a total blowout but the Huskies have a much faster, bigger, and deeper team than the Panthers and should win this game handily.
EIU - 17
NIU - 42