Wyoming Football: First Look at the Northern Illinois Huskies
The Cowboys will partake in some MACtion when they travel to DeKalb and face NIU. Here’s what to know about the Huskies.
Is NIU down and out for good?
Wyoming Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
In its first road game of 2021, the Wyoming Cowboys will head to Northern Illinois for a date with the Huskies. At first blush, this game may not appear to be of much consequence since Craig Bohl’s team has received a fair amount of preseason helium and NIU just had its first winless season since 1997, but the lone previous meeting between these two teams proved to be one of the wildest Mountain West games in recent years.
You just never know with MACtion. Teams in the Mid-American Conference are rarely down for long.
Location: DeKalb, Illinois
Mascot: Victor E. Huskie
2020 Record: 0-6 (0-6 MAC)
Head Coach: Thomas Hammock (third year, 5-13 overall). Hammock was thrust into a tough situation after his predecessor, Rod Carey, left for Temple late in the 2019 coaching carousel, and a lot of things went wrong for NIU during 2020. The offense underwhelmed and the defense betrayed them often by allowing 38.7 points per game, which explains why the Huskies ended up 0-3 in one-score games. They aren’t far from bouncing back toward a run at a bowl, but there are still plenty of questions for Hammock and his staff to answer.
WR/KR Trayvon Rudolph
Few things can change the tenor of a game quite like a big special teams play and, as it happens, the Huskies unearthed one of the nation’s best specialists last fall. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Rudolph returned more kicks than anyone else in the country (30) in 2020 and averaged a healthy 23.9 yards per return, but he also chipped in on offense with 14 catches for 232 yards. If he takes on a larger role, watch out.
WR Tyrice Richie
Rudolph flashed his potential in 2020 but make no mistake: Richie is the best player on the NIU offense. After starting six games in 2019, Richie led the team with 53 catches, 597 receiving yards and four touchdowns, all of which at least doubled what any other Husky produced.
— #MACtion (@MACSports) December 5, 2020
CB John Gandy
Gandy was a busy man on the Huskies defense last year, leading the team with 41 total tackles and seven passes defended. That’s not the kind of combination you see very often, but they needed every bit of it and he provides a bit of security for a unit in transition.
OL Brayden Patton
The projected offensive line tends to skew on the younger side, but Wyoming could have a tough time against the man setting up protections. The redshirt senior has spent significant time at both guard and center over the past three years and was recently named one of NIU’s four first-team honorees on Pro Football Focus’s preseason all-MAC team.
QB Rocky Lombardi
Bringing in a quarterback from Michigan State may not inspire a lot of confidence on its face, but Ross Bowers held down the QB1 role last year after coming in from Cal so you never know how these things will play out. Lombardi had a poor finish to his time in East Lansing, completing under 50% of his passes over his last four games, so he might get pushed but he’s far and away the most experienced option on the current roster.
Individually, the Huskies had some nice performances but overall, the offense left a lot to be desired in 2020. Only Akron averaged fewer yards per play and 24.8 points per game wasn’t nearly enough to keep up with the high-octane attacks elsewhere in the conference.
Bowers wasn’t terrible, but Lombardi has to be better for the Huskies to improve. If he can’t answer the bell, freshman Dustin Fletcher did see some playing time last fall and could push him throughout camp. The running game will need a rebound, too, but the good news there is that freshman Harrison Waylee and junior Erin Collins are both back after rushing for a combined 648 yards on 157 attempts.
What could make the biggest difference is the progression of an offensive line that is very young. Other than Patton, five different Huskies had at least three starts, three of whom started the entire year, and all of them are listed as freshmen and sophomores for 2021. If nothing else, the future looks bright there.
In allowing 6.63 yards per play, the NIU defense wasn’t much better than its offense but other measures suggest it wasn’t all bad for the Huskies and the youth movement they began last season could start paying dividends soon since ten starters are back.
While no one had more than 3.5 tackles for loss, senior Kyle Pugh decided to return for one last ride and a bevy of freshmen like Demonte O’Malley, Jordan Hansen and Pierce Oppong were able to get their feet wet in 2020. In that way, continued strong development could give the Huskies a very Wyoming-like front seven in short order if things go well.
In the secondary, they’ll need to get better production from others beyond Gandy because, after allowing opponents to average 9.2 yards per attempt and complete 65% of passes a year ago, failing to do so will kill their chances at seriously competing.
Northern Illinois won’t be as good as they were in their Jordan Lynch-led heyday, but they probably won’t be as bad as their 2020 record suggests they are. The Huskies are probably a year away from really taking aim at the MAC West crown, which is good news for a seasoned Cowboys team ready to win right now.
Wyoming 31, Northern Illinois 17