Twice the Northern Illinois Huskies didn’t get the bounce they needed late in the game, the last of which sealed their fate - a 38-35 loss to the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
First, when leading 35-31 with just under two minutes to go, the Huskies decided not to punt the ball and try to pin Tulsa deep in their own territory. Instead, they opted to go for it on fourth and four near midfield. Quarterback Rocky Lombardi rolled out and tossed a strike to his tight end, George Gumbs. The pass hit Gumbs right in the chest but bounced away, giving Tulsa the ball and a short field. Many didn’t like the call but the defense had given up big play after big play already so there was no real reason to not try to end it there.
Tulsa would score less than a minute later, leaving NIU 58 seconds to work with. On their next possession the Huskies were on the move, quickly approaching midfield with more than 35 seconds to go. Down just three, Lombardi dropped back to pass and threw another very catchable pass, this time to Fabian McCray. McCray couldn’t haul it in, instead tipping it up where it was intercepted by a Hurricane player, sealing the game for Tulsa.
Last year’s magical run would have seen either (or both) of those plays go the Huskies way but, so far in 2022, they just don’t have that same luck.
However, there are still a few things we can take away from the opening two games as we approach the SEC portion of NIU’s non-conference schedule.
The running game isn’t clicking just yet...
Northern’s offense has yet to play a complete game. It fell apart in the second half against Eastern Illinois and last week the Huskies netted just 65 yards in the first 25 minutes of the game before making a furious comeback in the second half.
The rushing attack certainly hasn’t been there like most NIU fans thought it would be. Last week, the Huskies ran for just 126 yards on 37 attempts. The week prior, they had just 187 yards against an FCS team.
The trio of Harrison Waylee, Antario Brown, and Mason Blakemore should be producing way more than they are so far - especially since they have one of the best o-lines in the MAC. They are managing 4.4 yards per carry on the season, however, the vast majority has come in one big chunk rather than consistent solid runs.
Against Tulsa, Waylee only touched the ball five times, gaining 17 yards (13 of which came on a single rush). Versus EIU, he had 83 yards on 14 carries...54 came on one rush. Brown had 13 carries for 70 yards against the Panthers (35 on one rush), Blakemore had 35 yards against Eastern (19 on a single carry).
The Huskies need to get more consistent gains on the ground rather than hoping/waiting for the big play to happen.
Drops have hurt the Huskies
The receiving corp for NIU hasn’t looked spectacular without Rudolph. And it’s going to get worse, as tight end Miles Joiner just revealed that he tore his ACL and will be out for the rest of the season.
Cole Tucker has been the bright spot receiving for NIU, hauling in 11 passes for 190 yards and a score. His 190 yards is 36th best in the NCAA and the most in the MAC currently.
Transfer Shemar Thornton has 112 yards on eight grabs but he has also dropped a few throws that should have been caught; meaning he should have way more yards than he currently does.
Outside of those two, no other Huskie has more than three receptions. There hasn’t been another player that has really stood out/stepped up to provide a third option for Lombardi.
Kacper Rutkiewicz, who has three grabs for 45 yards and two scores last week, looked real good at times in the the Tulsa game...but, he, too, has dropped a few passes that should have been hauled in, including a clutch one on third down in the week one game. Hopefully we’ll see him pick up the production more as the season goes on. If last week was any indicator, and with the loss to Joiner, we’ll start seeing him more against Vandy this Saturday.
The defense still has work to do...
Coming into this season we all speculated the defense would be susceptible to big plays and give up yardage again, especially through the air. And, so far, they have.
Both EIU and Tulsa out-gained the Huskies, averaging 435 yard per game to NIU’s 382 which isn’t great. Against the Panthers, NIU allowed 5.5 yards per rush and nearly eight yards per pass. The Tulsa game saw the rushing numbers drop, to just 2.9 per rush, but the passing yards spiked up to 10.1 per pass - aided by EIGHT completions of 20+ yards.
Third and fourth downs have also hurt the Huskies this season. Opponents have converted 14 of their 25 third down attempts (56%)...that’s 125th out of 131 teams in the NCAA. NIU is also allowing their foes to convert half of their fourth down attempts (2/4).
However, the Huskies have won the turnover battle in both games - forcing two picks against the Panthers and snagging another interception and recovering a fumble against Tulsa for a +3 turnover margin (the best in the MAC and tied for 16th in the NCAA). Forcing turnovers, especially interceptions, is something NIU struggled to do last season so to see them force four turnovers in the first two games is encouraging moving forward.
The defense has also been able to get pressure a little bit more often this season than last year. They have tallied three sacks, seven TFL, and five QB hurries so far.
NIU just needs to limit those third down conversions and big plays. If the secondary can do that, the Huskies will be a much more difficult team to play.