Game Preview: Northwestern vs. Northern Illinois
Northwestern’s second try for win number one comes Saturday against Northern Illinois, a dangerous Mid-American Conference team who beat down on Presbyterian last week. WNUR’s Greg Mroz breaks down the game.
Northwestern Football Weekly Preview
Game 2: Northern Illinois at Northwestern
No team not from a power conference has gotten more attention over the past two seasons than the Northern Illinois Huskies. Lead by the now graduated Jordan Lynch, NIU essentially become a powerhouse overnight, going 12-1 and winning MAC title in 2012, which vaulted them into the 2013 Orange Bowl where they lost to EJ Manuel and Florida State. Last season, the Huskies were a perfect 12-0 until they suffered a bad loss in the MAC title game against Bowling Green, and eventually suffered a one touchdown loss against Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl. Lynch may be gone, but head coach Rod Carey has laid down a foundation for continued success in DeKalb. For Northwestern, this game is unique because athletic director Jim Phillips came to Evanston from that same post at NIU. The last time these two teams met in 2005, Northern Illinois scored a touchdown to pull within one with seconds to go, but NIU went for two and failed, giving Northwestern a 38-37 victory at Ryan Field. Lets take a look at a matchup that could prove to be a very intriguing in-state rivalry for years to come.
Of the WNUR staff, I was the only person who picked Cal to win, and I did so because I believed that Cal’s offense would stand out above all else. What I did not see is that Northwestern’s offense would play as conservatively as they did. The Wildcats hardly went deep on a Cal pass defense that struggled all of last year, and the only semblance of creativity came on a double pass that allowed Trevor Siemian to score a 17 yard receiving touchdown. Northwestern’s defense was not prepared for the two quarterback system of Jared Goff and Luke Rubenzer, but after giving up 24 points in the first half, Cal was limited to one score in the 2nd half. In the end, Northwestern did not have nearly enough on offense to beat the Golden Bears, losing their first non-conference game since falling to Army 21-14 during the 2011 season.
Northern Illinois squared off against Presbyterian last Saturday, and there really isn’t much to say after that. The Huskies won 55-3, and combined for 424 yards rushing. Joel Bouagnon scored four touchdowns on only 97 yards on the ground. Matt McIntosh and Drew Hare combined for 187 yards passing and two touchdowns. The Huskies defense allowed only 127 yards to Presbyterian. This is the third straight year that the Huskies face a Big Ten opponent in the first two weeks of the year (They opened up with Iowa in 2012 and 2013)
Trevor Siemian was not great, but not horrible against the Golden Bears. He threw for 229 yards against a recovering Cal defense, but in both career games against the Golden Bears, he has thrown a combined four interceptions (two in each game). Siemian did enough to keep Northwestern in the game vertically though, but on the ground there is much to be desired with the exception of true freshman Justin Jackson. Jackson rushed for 40 yards on 8 carries, and Solomon Vault had 5 carries for 25 yards. Treyvon Green’s performance wasn’t great (13 carries for 38 yards) but based upon the play calling he wasn’t put in a great situation to succeed. Too often Green and others were running the ball in short yardage situations that were predictable (Warren Long on 4th and 1 first drive of the game?). Cameron Dickerson had one big 54 yard catch for a touchdown but other than that no receivers made a huge impact. After one game, there is no go to receiver.
To say that Northern Illinois is a running team is an understatement. Last year, Jordan Lynch, who came in third in the Heisman voting, ran for 1920 yards and 23 touchdowns. The team’s second leading rusher, Cameron Stingily, rushed for 1119 yards and 9 touchdowns. Lynch is gone, but Stingily remains, although he will not play in this game due to an undisclosed injury that also kept him out of the opener. Akeem Daniels is back after missing all of 2013 with an injury, and he started off with a 15 carry, 118 yard performance in the opener. Joel Bouagnon, who had the four touchdowns mentioned earlier, is an Aurora product who is also expected to be a big contributor. As for the passing game, the Huskies top two receivers from a year ago are both back in the form of Da’Ron Brown and Tommylee Lewis, but questions remain at quarterback. Matt McIntosh started the first game, but he was replaced by Drew Hare. McIntosh is the guy, his high school pedigree is good (2010 Indiana Gatorade High School Player of the Year) but can he execute?
Northern Illinois has proven they can run the football, Northwestern hasn’t. Until Northwestern can run the ball with some consistency, their offense is mediocre at best. NIU has kept a consistent running game over the past three years, but McIntosh needs to help elevate the passing game.
Advantage: Northern Illinois
In the Cal game, Northwestern’s pass defense was not good. The Wildcats surrendered 7.7 yards per pass attempt, and allowed 414 total yards. They had no real answer for Jared Goff, and in the first half Luke Rubenzer threw the run defense into disarray. Drew Smith and Collin Ellis were exceptional, and Chi Chi Ariguzo made some big plays as well, but both Traveon Henry and Nick VanHoose were picked on, and both need to play better than they did against Cal if they are going to force NIU into going exclusively with the run. The key in this game for NU is the front four. Greg Kuhar had a nice debut as a starting DT, and Deonte Gibson showed that his speed makes him one of the best pass rushers on the team. The run defense has consistently been good over the past year, which will be a plus against a team like Northern Illinois.
The Huskies are not big on defense, and seemingly play better when the offense plays well. At least that was the trend the past two seasons. There can’t be much taken from a performance against a team like Presbyterian, but NIU went for the kill and allowed only three points on 127 total yards. The man to watch for Northern Illinois is senior safety Dechane Durante, who had 55 tackles last year along with three picks. Other than him, there is not a lot to write home about in terms of playmakers for Northern Illinois.
Jack Mitchell did everything that was asked of him, but on the first series of the Cal game Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for it on 4th down instead of kicking a 40 yard field goal. Chris Gradone was not good, averaging just over 30 yards per punt, and that allowed Cal premium field position in the first half. The return game was also non-existent, as Northwestern kneeled most kickoffs and they did not have a single punt return
Kicking and punting are somewhat of an unknown for NIU, as senior punter Tyler Wedel will take over placekicking duties in 2014, replacing the shaky Mathew Sims. NIU didn’t have to punt a whole lot in 2013 because their offense was stellar. Tommylee Lewis has great speed in the return game, and was named to the Paul Hornung Award watch list, which is the award given to the nation’s top all purpose player.
Give the kicking advantage to Northwestern, and the return advantage to Northern Illinois, yet unless it comes down to the wire, it’s hard to see special teams making a huge difference in this game, unless Gradone has as much trouble as he did last week
Rod Carey is an offensive minded coach, and has built a program that is based on what they call “The Hard Way”; the results speak for themselves. He will attack Northwestern in the run game, and that means everyone will run, including Matt McIntosh and receivers like Tommylee Lewis. Pat Fitzgerald might need to take a few risks against NIU if put in a hole, but what will be interesting to see is how vertical both teams will get, as both have a great desire to run the football.
This is a matchup that is pretty even, but as Rod Carey said in his Tuesday press conference, Northwestern is a big physical football team. That isn’t necessarily true by Big Ten standards, but where Northwestern holds the biggest advantage is in pure size at all positions, and that alone may be the difference in the game.
Northwestern 27, Northern Illinois 20