Get to know an opponent: Northern Illinois

The Bulls open the season on the road against the Huskies in the first UB game during the COVID era

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After months of speculation and anticipation, UB football finally returns to the field Wednesday night.

The Bulls will kick the season off in a rematch of the 2018 Mid-American Conference championship game, traveling to DeKalb to take on Northern Illinois.

Following an 8-5 2019 record and Bahamas Bowl victory, expectations are high for UB this season. A conference-only schedule gives the Bulls a sense of familiarity with their opponents but doesn’t provide any tune-up games against lesser opponents to start the season. 

Northern Illinois followed a 2018 MAC championship with an underwhelming 2019 campaign, finishing the season just 5-7. With NIU losing many starters from last season, they come into week one as a young team with many first-time starters.

Despite the oddsmakers viewing the Bulls as double-digit favorites, UB has never beat Northern Illinois since joining the MAC in 1999. 

With a fast-paced UB football season set to start under the national spotlight of ESPN 2 Wednesday night, here’s a look at the Bulls’ week one opponent:

Coach: Thomas Hammock, 5-7, entering his second season at Northern Illinois.

Looking Back

Under first-year head coach Thomas Hammock, the Huskies finished the 2019 season with a 5-7 record.

NIU scored 22.8 points per game last season, ranking 10th in the MAC. On the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies allowed opponents to score an average of 28.2 points per game, tied for fifth in the conference.

The Huskies struggled in out-of-conference play last season, going 0-3 in three consecutive losses to Utah, Nebraska and Vanderbilt. The Huskies lost to the three teams by a cumulative 60 points.

But NIU went 4-4 in conference play, keeping more games competitive when playing within the MAC.

Northern Illinois has many key losses on both the offensive and defensive sides of the football, losing many of its best players to graduation and the transfer portal.

Last season, the Huskies’ offensive line was anchored by first-team All-MAC tackle Jordan Steckler. Steckler was NIU’s only first-team All-MAC selection and graduated in 2019, pursuing a career in the NFL.

Running back Tre Harbison was the team’s biggest offensive threat, leading the Huskies with 1,021 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. After three years at Northern Illinois, the third-team All-MAC selection transferred to Charlotte.

Tight end Mitchell Brinkman was also lost to the transfer portal after the third-team All-MAC selection transferred to South Florida following the 2019 season.

On the defensive side of the ball, defensive lineman Jack Heflin ranked second in the MAC with three forced fumbles in 2019. He also led Northern Illinois in sacks (3) and tackles for loss (8.5). A second-team All-MAC selection, Heflin elected to transfer to Iowa as a graduate transfer.

Safety Mykelti Williams earned second-team All-MAC honors and was named 2019 team MVP, recording 88 tackles while playing in all 12 games. Williams graduated following the 2019 season, leaving a huge hole in NIU’s defense.

Kicker John Richardson went 14-18 on field-goal attempts and a perfect 30-30 and extra-point tries. The third-team All-MAC selection returns to the Huskies’ roster for the 2020 season.

Looking Forward

The Huskies 2020 roster contains 57 newcomers with 66 underclassmen making them an extremely young and inexperienced team. Redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers returns with a group of new, inexperienced playmakers in his backfield. Rondarius Gregory, who got just nine carries for 43 yards last season, is the only returning running back from last season. He is joined by junior college transfer Erin Collins and true freshman Harrison Waylee in the Huskies backfield. 

Wide receivers Tyrice Rice and Cole Tucker return for the Huskies in 2020. Rice led the team in touchdown catches last season with four and Tucker led the team with 38  receptions and 531 receiving yards. NIU is especially young at the receiver position, with eight freshman receivers on the active roster.

NIU has five returning starters on the defensive side of the ball including senior linebackers Lance Deveaux Jr. and Kyle Pugh, who both missed the majority of the 2019 season due to injury. The two bring a combined 34 starts and 250 tackles to the young Huskies defense. 

Bottom Line

With the MAC season being only six games this year, the margin of error is slimmer than ever. A week one win goes a long way in hopes of a MAC championship appearance in December. Each team looks to start off on the right foot in a season that is more resemblant to a sprint as opposed to a marathon. With an inexperienced roster, the Huskies face many challenges against an experienced and talented Bulls team. The Bulls have a clear talent and experience advantage but still have yet to beat NIU since joining the MAC. UB will have to overcome the ghost of 2018’s MAC championship game to get the season off on a strong note. 

After a chaotic offseason, week one will be as much about fine-tuning execution and roster decisions as it will be winning the game.

Anthony DeCicco is the Senior Sports Editor and can be reached at anthony.decicco@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @DeCicco42. 

ANTHONY DECICCO


Anthony Decicco is the senior sports editor for The Spectrum.