The Huskies still have a strong defense, but have changed things up at quarterback.
Northern Illinois returns to Lincoln with a 1-1 record after losing to Utah 35-17 last Saturday. In the season opener, the Huskies beat 1-AA Illinois State 24-10. Cal graduate transfer Ross Bowers took over the starting quarterback job in the preseason, unseating returning starter Marcus Childers. Bowers gives Northern Illinois a better passing game; against the Utes, Bowers completed 20 of 29 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown with one interception. Against Illinois State, junior college transfer Tyrice Richie was the leading receiver with 102 yards but against Utah, senior Spencer Tears was the main weapon, catching five passes including a 74 yard touchdown pass.
The switch from the dual threat Childers to the pocket passing Bowers at quarterback has come at the expense of the Northern Illinois rushing attack. With only one threat to run, opposing defenses have been able to lock down on Tre Harbison, who only rushed for 32 yards against the Utes. The offensive line bears a lot of blame for the poor rushing game; Bowers was sacked four times by Utah and pressured even more often.
Defensively, Northern Illinois has been pretty strong against the run, holding Utah’s second-team all-Pac 12 running back Zach Moss to just 80 yards rushing last week; last season, Moss’ worst game rushing was also against the Huskies. But without Sutton Smith, the Huskies struggle to pressure the quarterback with just one sack on the season (that coming late against Illinois State). Linebackers Antonio Jones-Davis and Kyle Pugh lead the Huskies’ defense with 11 and 9 tackles respectively.
Below, you’ll find the summertime pre-season preview of the Northern Illinois Huskies for comparison purposes.
The beginning of the end.
That’s one way to remember Northern Illinois’ last trip to Nebraska in 2017. Tanner Lee threw two pick-six interceptions in the first quarter, and it became clear to everyone that the Mike Riley experiment was heading into an uncontrollable tailspin. Within days, University leadership dismissed athletic director Shawn Eichorst, recognizing that Nebraska couldn’t trust Eichorst with selecting another football coach after completely botching the 2014 hire.
Nebraska losing in MAC-tion would seem to be worthy of the University’s leaders hitting the panic button, but it really was the final straw in a long series of failures under Mike Riley. Truth be told, Northern Illinois is not your typical MAC program; the Huskers have been consistent winners and even earned an Orange Bowl berth after the 2012 season. But the days of Jordan Lynch are over; in recent years, it’s been defense that’s been carrying the program the last few seasons.
That defense is going to require some rebuilding in 2019, as two time all-American defensive end Sutton Smith is off to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Huskies do have seven returning starters, including junior defensive tackle Jack Heflin (6’3” 284 lbs.), a third-team all-MAC honoree last season. He’ll be paired with junior nose guard Weston Kramer (6’1” 292 lbs.) and senior backup Ben LeRoy (6’3” 302 lbs.). The trio combined for 105 tackles (15 for a loss) and nine sacks last season.
The linebacker corps returns intact. Senior weakside linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis (5’11” 226 lbs.) won first team all-MAC honors in a 130 tackle (14.5 for loss) 2018 season. Senior middle linebacker Kyle Pugh (6’0” 235 lbs.), a second team all-MAC honoree last year, added 106 tackles (5 for a loss). Senior rover Lance Deveaux (5’11” 211 lbs.) added 67 tackles (5 for a loss)
In the secondary, two sophomores look to take over at cornerback, but at safety, seniors Mykelti Williams (5’11” 208 lbs.) and Trayshon Foster (6’0” 201 lbs.) are entrenched. Williams, who started his career at Notre Dame, is a two year starter who earned second team all-MAC honors last season. Jalen McKie (5’7’ 169 lbs.), one of those sophomore corners, started two games last season; his two interceptions matched Williams for the team lead last season despite playing mostly as a backup last season.
In 2017, Northern Illinois’ offense was struggling with a revolving door at quarterback. By midseason, they had turned to choice #3, a redshirt freshman Marcus Childers (6’0” 222 lbs.), who ended up winning MAC Freshman of the year. As a sophomore, the dual threat quarterback rushed for a net 531 yards after subtracting 43 sacks while completing 59% of his passes for 2,175 yards and 15 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. If Childers and new Northern Illinois offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness (formerly at South Dakota State) can figure out a way to cut down on the negative plays, things could start to click offensively. If not, there’s graduate transfer Ross Bowers (6’1” 200 lbs.), who started 13 games at Cal until being sidelined with a thumb injury. A pocket passer, Bowers completed 59% of his passes for 3,039 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2017.
The key weapon in the Northern Illinois passing game this season will be senior wide receiver Spencer Tears (6’1” 198 lbs.). A former Nebraska commit, Tears is a two year starter who came on strong in the MAC Championship game; last season, he caught 40 passes for 422 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomore Cole Tucker (6’2” 193 lbs.) started seven games as a freshman, catching 18 passes for 156 yards. Junior college transfer Tyrice Richie (5’11” 190 lbs.) will probably also get a chance, as Northern Illinois must replace their top two receivers from last season.
Junior tailback Tre Harbison (5’11” 227 lbs.) rushed for 1,034 yards and five touchdowns last season, earning him second team all-MAC honors. He averaged 5.0 yards per carry and only lost 11 yards last season. Senior Marcus Jones (5’8” 199 lbs.) and sophomore Jordan Nettles (5’9” 181 lbs.) also return after rushing for 527 and 217 yards last season respectively. With former NC State running back Erin Collins (6’0” 206 lbs.) arriving on campus this summer, Northern Illinois will be four-deep at running back this season.
Three starters return on the Northern Illinois offensive line, with no projected starter weighing in at less than 295 pounds. That’s some decent size to fuel that rushing attack. Senior right tackle Jordan Steckler (6’5” 306 lbs.) is a three-year starter who was third team all-MAC in 2017; last season, he missed four games due to injury. Senior right guard Nathan Veloz (6’5” 319 lbs.) is a two year starter. The new coaching staff is very high on redshirt freshman Marques Cox (6’5” 300 lbs.), who could start at left tackle for Northern Illinois.
Without Sutton Smith (or Tanner Lee, for that matter) around this season, this should be a game Nebraska should be able to control. While Northern Illinois should be better offensive team than we saw in 2017, it was the Huskies’ defense that pulled off that upset. While the 2019 Huskies should still be one of the better defensive teams in the MAC, they won’t be nearly as potent as that group two years ago.