2023 Preview: Northern Illinois

We turn the page to Northern Illinois and we go over how Nebraska can finally get in the win column this Saturday. I can’t really figure out this team… for most of the 2010s Northern Illinois was a power, between 2011 to 2018 the Huskies had 5 straight seasons of 11 wins or more and won 4 conference titles. Their coach leaves and they hire a former player who completely shits the bed his first two years of 2019 and 2020, but then 2021 happens where they get to 9 wins and a conference title.

Last year, Northern Illinois went 3-9 with only five of their losses being by one score (2021 team went 7-2 in one score games). 2022 had a litany of health issues for the Huskies, so it figures this year will be much better for them. 2023 started out with a bang, going on the road to beat Boston College. However, just last week they were beat 11-14 by an FCS squad. Which team shows up in Lincoln? Let’s take a look at the positions…

Why not start with a guy that seems older than our President, as NIU returns Rocky Lombardi for his 7th college football season. Lombardi started at Michigan State before transferring to NIU in 2021. He is a veteran who was supposed to come in and be a rock for this team, but he has been anything but that for 2023. So far, he has a 54.5% completion percentage with 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions. Very Jeff Sims of him. With that said, he can’t run at all like our guy, and has actually 13 attempts for -5 yards. As we talked about in the Colorado preview, DC White eats up immobile QBs, so I expect us to have a good game defensively just due to who their QB is. The backups really haven’t played, in fact the only other person registering a pass is a RB.

The Huskies feature 2 backs in their offense. Antario Brown is the leading rusher, who was a backup a majority of his career at Northern Illinois. He is averaging 57 yards per game and only 3 ypc. Gavin Williams is having better luck than Brown on the ground, as Williams is averaging 35.5 yards per game but is at 4.2 ypc. Williams, who transferred from Iowa, may start to see more snaps this week vs Nebraska.

Wide Receiver/Tight End:
Northern Illinois has an astounding 21 WRs on their roster with 11 freshman listed. Part of me is wishing for that kind of depth in Lincoln. However, they have one stud and a bunch of average around him. The Huskies are led by Kacper Rutkiewicz who has 11 receptions for 185 yards and a touchdown so far this year. At only 5’8 178 pounds, think of him like Horn Jr from Colorado and Croom from Minnesota. Here you see the longest play for Northern Illinois this year and the only touchdown through the air on the season:


Chris Carter, a Tight End, is the other Northern Illinois receiving threat with 5 receptions for 100 yards. Other than that, there is a host of players with 32 yards or fewer receiving. Take away there slot WR and this TE and we should be good to go. I expect Newsome and Hartzog to make this a game played between the hashes and not on the outside for us.

Offensive Line:
This position group is where things get interesting. Phil Steele at the beginning of the year had them ranked as the 21st best OL in the entire country (Nebraska was ranked 63rd if you are wondering). Last year this OL only allowed 12 sacks which was 10th best in all of the NCAA, and they also allowed the running game to go for 4.8 ypc. The Huskies were supposed to return all 5 starters, but Marques Cox transferred to Kentucky. Even with that loss, Northern Illinois returns 117 starts and is billed as one of the best in the MAC. Their best player is their Right Tackle, Nolan Potter who was first team all-conference a year ago and garnering attention this year. Next to Potter at RG is supposed to be Logan Zschernitz, who was third team all-conference last year. But i’m not seeing him on the OurLads depth chart, which makes me think he may be banged up. At center is Pete Nygra, who was voted freshman of the year by the team after 2022 and is garnering preseason all-conference honors. Their LG was a second-team all conference selection last year and is landing on preseason watch lists as well.

This is a very veteran group, and the starts are everywhere. But the reality is they haven’t done much this year to get the offense moving.

Defensive Line:
The Huskies lose a lot but somehow bring back a lot. I can’t make sense of it. Phil Steele has DT Devonte O’Malley as a first team all-conference preseason selection, and both James Ester and Raishein Thomas as second team all-conference selections. That’s 3 guys that should be able to hold their own against the Nebraska offensive line. And Thomas is currently leading the team in tackles and TFLs from the DL spot. Crazy. While they have a good front line, they do an excellent job rotating guys in and out to keep fresh.

NIU deploys a 4-2-5 PESO type scheme, so they have 2 LBs and a “HUSKY” position. Jaden Dolphin who played the HUSKY spot last year has transitioned to an ILB spot. Unlike a Chinander 3-4, the DL is used to disrupt plays so the linebackers aren’t getting as much of the stats as our ILBs from 2018-2022 did. Daron Gilbert is another name to watch out for as he always seems to be around the ball.

Defensive Backs:
The DBs are led by CJ Brown who was a second team all-conference preseason selection by Phil Steele. The Husky position will always be involved with the back end as well. JaVaughn Byrd has NIUs only interception this year from one of the corner positions. If there is a weak spot in the Husky defense it is the DBs I feel, but that’s not our strength.

As we discussed, the defensive backfield can be taken advantage of, but do we really have that in our arsenal with starting HH and minimal WRs? The bottom line in my opinion, is despite how good the NIU DL is supposed to be, our OL needs to be able to push them around and get some rushing yards.

I also think the NIU offense is so bad that they may get some chunk yards surprising us on some gadget plays. If our defense can hold up like they have been, there is zero reason we shouldn’t win this game.

I expect both teams to run some clock and shorten the game. NIU doesn’t really have receiving threats and their OL hasn’t been all that great to get the run game going. Lombardi the QB threw 3 INTs last week against an FCS school.

I expect our first win of the Rhule era and a decent showing though there will be frustration.

Nebraska 31
Northern Illinois 17

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4 thoughts on “2023 Preview: Northern Illinois

  1. Here’s hoping we can get a win, still raw after last week and trusting nothing. Pulling for the guys and still gonna watch though, so I guess I like the pain. Thanks for the write up!

  2. “… but do we really have that in our arsenal with starting HH and minimal WRs?”

    So Heinrich Haarberg is our starting QB tomorrow? This should be interesting…

  3. I have no clue if Haarberg can get the job done vs good teams or not.

    But if he does start and do ok, I’m sure that’ll have fans clamoring for him to take over for Sims.

    Whether or not that’d be a good thing, I really have no clue. If it doesn’t work, going back to Sims gets trickier with bouncing back and forth. If no one steps up, we may just be out of luck this year with a QB who looks better in practices and craps his pants during games, or other QBs who are worse overall.

    PS, did the Colorado game depress you too much to do a recap for that one? 😉

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