The Northern Illinois Huskies welcome the Vanderbilt Commodores to Huskie Stadium this weekend. It is the second time Vanderbilt has traveled to DeKalb. However, it’s been nearly 25 years since Vandy last made the trip up to Illinois, as they claimed a 17-7 victory over the Huskies on October 11th, 1997.
Both teams are coming off losses last week, with the Commodores (2-1, 0-0 SEC) falling to a ranked Wake Forest squad. The Huskies (1-1, 0-0 MAC) were able to comeback from a 24-7 deficit against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane last week before ultimately falling 38-35.
When: Saturday, September 17th at 2:30 p.m. (CST)
Where: Huskie Stadium - DeKalb, IL
Watch: CBS Sports
Weather: Sunny and mid 80’s
Odds: NIU is favored by 2.5 points but Vandy has a 66.2% chance to win according to ESPN’s FPI. The over/under is 58.5.
Vanderbilt is now 4-0 all-time against NIU and 11-2 against MAC schools, having won eight straight against the conference.
The Commodores and Huskies most recently met in Coach Hammocks first year, three years ago in late September, 2019. Vanderbilt was able to hold off NIU and claim a 24-18 victory in Nashville.
On the flip side, NIU is 1-11 against the SEC with their only win coming against a ranked Alabama team back in 2003. The Huskies have dropped three straight against the SEC, with losses to Tennessee (2008), Arkansas (2014), and these ‘Dores (2019) since that win over the Crimson Tide.
Everytime the Huskie and Dores have met, it has been a close game. The ten point win in 1997 was the largest margin of victory, with the other games being decided by 6, 3, and 1 point.
In “week 0” Vanderbilt destroyed Hawai’i 63-10 and followed that up with a slightly less impressive 42-31 win over Elon, out of the FCS. Last week they played #23 Wake Forest, who handed them their first loss - a 45-25 defeat at home.
However, he Commodores have been out-gained in the past two games. Against Elon, they were torched for 495 yards and last week Wake amassed 451 yards in their win. The offense has also trended downward. From putting up 601 yards against the Rainbow Warriors, they dropped to 424 against Elon and then to 294 last week (but it was a ranked ACC team).
Their offense has relied on big plays and scoring quickly. So far they have scored on plays of 87-, 75-, 44-, and 26-yards. And every Vandy scoring drive but one has been under four minutes...their lone drive over four minutes was just 4:23 seconds. They’ll either strike quickly or not at all.
Led by quarterback Mike Wright, Vanderbilt has averaged 43.3 points per game and have been almost equally effective passing and running, averaging 232.0 yards rushing and 207.7 passing per game.
Wright is a dual-threat quarterback that has already passed for 426 yards and six TDs and run for another 264 and four touchdowns. He’s second on the team in rushing by just five yards and he leads the team in rushing touchdowns. When he does throw the ball, he’s completing 60.0% of his passes, has only been sacked once, and intercepted just once. Most of his rushing yards came against Hawai’i, where he had an 87 yard TD run and scampered for a total of 163 yards.
Jayden McGowan and Will Sheppard are his two main targets through the air, with halfback Re’Mahn Davis coming in right behind the duo. McGowan has 201 yards on his 12 receptions but Sheppard has hauled in 13 passes for 142 yards, with five of them going for scores. Devin Boddie Jr. has 61 yards, third on the team, but just three catches whereas Davis has nine grabs for 46 yards and a TD.
Davis barely leads Wright in rushing, gaining 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns on his 47 carries (5.7/rush). If it’s not him or Wright carrying the ball, the Dores will use Chase Gillespie, who has 17 carries and 70 yards on the year, or Rocko Griffin, who has just five rushes but has amassed 63 yards and a score.
On defense, linebacker Anfernee Orji leads the bunch with 27 stops. He also has a fumble recovery for a touchdown. De’Rickey Wright is another linebacker to watch out for. He has 14 tackles, a TFL, and a pair of pass break ups.
Up front they have been led by Christian James. The d-lineman has eleven stops, a team-high 3.5 TFL, a QB hurry, and a sack.
However, it’s the secondary that has done most of the work. They have already netted 13 pass break ups as a team and four of their top six tacklers are DBs. Max Worship leads the way with 20 stops and three break ups but BJ Anderson and Jaylen Mahoney are also solid coverage guys, with each bringing down the ball carrier 13 times and breaking up a pass. Anderson has also added a sack.
NIU is looking to turn around their luck this week after the risky decision to go for it on 4th-and-4 near midfield didn’t pan out last week. I still like aggressive play call; we had the right play and the receiver just dropped it.
Drops have been an issue for the Huskies this season amongst all wide outs and tight ends. It seems like most of quarterback Rocky Lombardi’s incompletions have come from dropped passes. Lombardi now sits at a 60.4% completion rate (32/53), with 451 yards and four TDs to just one interception. As he sets up behind the best line in the MAC, he has yet to be sacked this year.
Cole Tucker has been his go-to guy. Tucker leads the MAC in receiving yards, with 190 yards on 11 catches and a touchdown. Shemar Thornton has looked pretty good so far as well. The FIU transfer has 112 yards on eight grabs and will be looking for his first TD as a Huskie this week. Finally, Kacper Rutkiewicz had a breakout game against Tulsa, hauling in three passes for 45 yards and two TDs. Hopefully he can step up and become a solid third option for Lombardi moving forward.
On the ground it has been a heavy dose of Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee with some Mason Blakemore sprinkled in. However, the running game has not been as great as expected. Brown now has 143 yards and two touchdowns on 33 carries, while Waylee sits at an even 100 yards on 19 rushes (54 of which came on a single run). Blakemore isn’t far off with his 65 yards on 15 touches.
Linebacker Davern Rayner has really come alive this season. He leads the team with 25 tackles. Kyle Pugh and Jaden Dolphin have also been good in the middle, netting 12 and ten tackles respectively.
Like Vandy, it has been the defensive backs that have made most of the plays on defense. C.J. Brown is second on the team with 14 stops, while Jordan Gandy has eleven, a PBU, and recovered a fumble. Let’s not forget Eric Rogers, who has a pair of interceptions or Muhammed Jammeh who has the other Huskie interception in addition to his eight tackles.
Up front, Raishein Thomas and Izayah Green-May have been solid. Thomas has ten tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 1.5 TFL while Green-May has five stops, leads the team with 2.5 TFL, and also has a sack and two QBH.
The Huskies will be looking to avenge their 2019 loss and rebound after last week’s close game. The Commodores do have an offense that can/will move the ball on these Huskies. But their defense is also very, very susceptible. With NIU being able to hold on to the ball better and milk the clock, they should be able to keep that high-powered dual-threat offense off the field.
Vandy has looked better than expected this season so far, there’s no denying that. However, the Huskies have what it takes - plus homefield advantage - to knock off this Commodore team and get to 2-1.
NIU - 38
Vandy - 31