The NII-5: What to watch as NIU heads to Western Michigan

The second half of the season kicks off Saturday when the Northern Illinois football team heads to Western Michigan as the winless Huskies take on the undefeated Broncos.

Western Michigan (3-0) is averaging more than 50 points per game, and the Huskies (0-3) are allowing 40 per game. But those scoring figures are inflated for NIU, with opponents having returned four turnovers for scores against the Huskies this year. NIU is allowing 401.7 yards per game, fifth in the MAC.

Kickoff is 11 a.m. Saturday.

Here are five storylines to watch:

Will the Huskies have an answer for Kaleb Eleby?

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Kaleb Eleby is having a dominant season for the Broncos, completing 67.7% of his passes for 928 yards, 11 touchdowns and an interception. He also leads the Broncos with three rushing touchdowns.

But the Huskies are third in the MAC in passing yards allowed, and Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said he saw what the Huskies did to Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt, holding him to 214 yards.

"Ball State is one of the best offenses in our league and they made it hard on Drew to move the ball," Lester said.

Ten different Broncos have caught a pass this year, and three have at least seven catches. D'Wayne Eskridge has 14 catches, 457 yards and six scores this year.

"(Eleby) obviously has a very strong arm. He's very active as well," Hammock said. "When you put those two things in place, and you look at their receivers, he can make throws all over the field most people can't make."

Hammock said the Broncos can turn a 10-yard route into an 80-yard gain. And Eleby can do it from anywhere on the field.

"He can throw from the left hash to the far side of the field," Hammock said. "We're going to have to defend the whole field, mix up coverages, and get him guessing a little bit. Because when he is comfortable and on rhythm, he's a very dangerous passer."

Hammock said aside from a couple big plays, the secondary has done a nice job this year.

Freshman safety Devin Lafayette said limiting the big play has been the focal point this week.

"We talked about that killer instinct at practice," Lafayette said. "You basically just want to have that killer instinct, be a dog, make sure you have your eyes right, limit your mistakes and it will be good."

Seven freshmen will start on defense for NIU

Lafayette is just one of seven freshmen starting on defense.

And Hammock said that cornerback Eric Rogers is back from injury and will see plenty of time on the field, with his 6-2 frame helping a lot.

At the beginning of the year five freshmen were starting, but injuries and a targeting penalty have forced guys like Eddie Jackson and Daveren Rayner at linebacker into starting roles.

Lester noted the youth of the Huskies and said they've still managed to do well.

"They've got some young players, at least on defense," Lester said. "They're going to be good. Plus they still have Kyle Pugh, their stud linebacker who's been playing there forever. It's going to be a challenge."

Pugh won't be available for the first half

Despite the high praise from Lester, Pugh won't be available in the first half Saturday. He has a team-best 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Jackson, who has four tackles this year, will get the start in his place.

"Eddie Jackson is a young man we feel good about, had a good camp," Hammock said. "He's played for us, played last week. We have all the confidence in the world in him and what he's going to bring to the table."

Hammock also said Lance Deveaux, injured before the Huskies' Week 2 game in practice, is still out.

The Huskies kept the Broncos from winning the MAC West last year

All the Broncos had to do last year to claim the MAC West was beat a struggling NIU team in DeKalb.

But the Huskies won the game, 17-14, to deny the Broncos.

"We've been talking about it since that day," Lester said. "We didn't finish the season. We didn't finish the job last year. When we do our cutups, we put that game from last year in it. So I've had to watch it for the last five days. And it is miserable."

At the Broncos press conference earlier this week, Lester devoted a chunk of his opening statement to the loss last year, and the first two questions were about it.

"Give them credit. They played well and we didn't, and they won the game," Lester said. "We have a chance to make it right."

But as much as it's on the mind of the Broncos, Hammock said he's not concerned.

"I'm honestly not too concerned with their football team," Hammock said. "My concern is our football team and making sure that we're prepared to play an excellent team."

Offense problems

NIU is ninth in the MAC in total offense with 351 yards per game, and 10th in scoring average with 21.7 points per game.

They've turned the ball over eight times, worst in the MAC. Four of those have been returned directly for touchdowns.

"We have to continue to play cleaner, to limit turnovers," Hammock said. "Especially turnovers that lead to scores."

Freshman receiver Trayvon Rudolph agreed with his coach, saying that the team has to stop turning the ball over. Last week was the closest game of the year, a 31-25 loss to Ball State, and the Huskies had just one turnover - although one that was returned for a score.

"We haven't been great, but we've been learning," Rudolph said. "We're going to keep getting better, eliminating turnovers. Last week we had one. As soon as we eliminate the turnovers we'll be good."

Hammock also said the team needs to get players like Tyrice Richie and Rudolph the ball more. Richie is fourth in the country and first in the MAC with nine catches per game.

"We got to find a way to get our playmakers in a position to get the ball, and in a one-on-one situation," Hammock said. "Last week we started doing that more. We have certain plays we want to call and get the ball in those guys' hands. Tyrice is doing a nice job. Trayvon is doing a fine job. We have some guys that can make some big plays, some explosive plays but we have to get them involved early."

Eddie Carifio

Has been the sports editor in DeKalb since 2014.