DeKALB – Coming off a 38-35 loss last week at Tulsa, the Northern Illinois football team hosts Vanderbilt – in its second appearance at Huskie Stadium and still the only SEC team to play in DeKalb.
The game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday on CBS Sports Network, with Vanderbilt entering the game 2-1 after losing to Wake Forest.
Scouting the Commodores
The Commodores already matched their win total from last year, opening with victories against Hawaii and Elon. They are averaging 43.3 points per game and 439.7 yards per game. Running back Ray Davis and quarterback Mike Wright are nearly split in rushing stats, with Davis rushing for 269 yards on 47 carries with two scores. Wright has 32 carries for 264 yards and four scores.
Wright has passed for 426 yards, six touchdowns and one interception. Wide receivers Will Shepard (13-142-5) and Jayden McGowan (12-201-1) are the main targets.
“The quarterback really makes it go,” NIU head coach Thomas Hammock said. “The running back is a really good player. [McGowan] is a dynamic player as a true freshman. And [Shepard] is a guy they want to get the ball to in the red zone. They can create a lot of problems.”
3 things to watch
1. The performance of the NIU offensive line
The Huskies are averaging 156.5 yards per game on the ground after finishing last year as one of the top rushing teams in the country.
Not only is the running back group deep with Antario Brown, Mason Blakemore and Harrison Waylee, but four of the five starters on the line from last year returned. Hammock said it’s the line that needs to up its play against a Vandy team allowing 137 rushing yards per game.
“I think we need to play better,” Hammock said. “I think we have a lot of guys back with experience, but they need to play better. They need to strain more. ... Our inability to run the football right now is hurting our football team. We have to figure out some way to get some yards in the running game, because these backs are dynamic. If they give these guys a chance, they can do some special things.”
One of those four returners, left tackle Marques Cox, said the line can improve its play.
“We have a lot of improvement we need to do within the room,” Cox said. “We have to hone in on our details and actually execute plays when they are called. But we’re growing each and every week.”
2. Defense hunting for sustained showing
Between the last two quarters of a 34-27 win against Eastern Illinois in the opener and the first two against Tulsa, the Huskies gave up 510 yards and 45 points.
But Hammock said he likes a lot of what he’s seen from the defense. The Huskies got four sacks against Tulsa and had other near-sacks. They’re also creating turnovers with two in each of the first two games and three total interceptions, matching the total interceptions the team made in 14 games last year. He said the real killer has been on third downs, having allowed a 58% conversion rate.
“Our defense is actually doing some really, really good things,” Hammock said. “We have to be able to in critical situations get off the field. If our offense starts to play better, our defense will continue to improve. When you watch the tape, the mistakes are correctable. And the players see themselves, ‘Hey, if I would have done my job here they don’t complete this pass or make that play.’ From a scheme standpoint and a structure standpoint we have the pieces in place. Now we have to go execute our job all the time.”
3. Looking for an SEC win
The team refers to wins against Power 5 conferences as boneyard wins, and they have one of those under Hammock, knocking off Georgia Tech in the opener last year. They fell short in the team’s 2019 meeting in Hammock’s first year in Nashville, 24-18.
“Anytime we can fight for a boneyard victory, I think we really salivate at those opportunities, especially at home,” cornerback Jordan Gandy said. “It’s exciting. We’re ready for it.”
Pulse of the fan
After a pair of close games to start the year, the Huskies can make a definite statement over the Commodores in knocking off an SEC school, especially if they can do so convincingly. But close games are the calling card of Hammock’s tenure – 21 of the 34 games the Huskies have played with Hammock as the head coach have been one-possession games, and 10 of those were decided by a field goal or less. A lot of it is going to come down to the NIU defense. Hammock said they’re a couple third-down stops away from a turnaround, and if that comes Saturday, it could be a fun day for Huskies fans.