As the summer rolls on, From the Rumble Seat now pivots to previewing the opponents for the upcoming season. The previews will be presented to you, dear readers, in chronological order. So, without further ado, let’s talk about the Huskies of Northern Illinois University.
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It’s not often I venture out of my corner of this venerable website to talk about the football team, but, alas here we are. Quite frankly, I haven’t been doing much writing at all lately, trying to recharge after five years of Tech coursework along with writing 2-3 articles a week left me pretty burnt out in the “sit at the computer and put words on the page” department, but, well, now we’re back and ready for another five. Of writing, that is. I think I’ve had my fill in the “Tech classes” department for a good long while.
Honestly, not many people know this, but I was actually chosen by Ben, Joey, and Cade as a contributor for From the Rumble Seat to write this particular article. You see, much as most of our readership is from metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia, so is the writing staff. In all their wisdom, they looked five seasons into the future, saw a football game against a mid-major team from somewhere outside Chicago and went, “ooh, we need that guy.”
Just ignore the fact that the game wasn’t on the schedule until the fall of 2019 and the whole thing looks plenty legit.
I’m stalling to draw out the long summer until I can get back to writing about non-revenue sports. For now, we talk football. Let’s get down to brass tacks.
As you know from my contrived little lead in, Northern Illinois University sits in the town of DeKalb, Illinois. Back up north, we pronounce the “L” in DeKalb, by the way. Why is it different? No idea. But this is the state that pronounces the second “S” in Marseilles, both “S”s in Des Plaines, and the “T” in Joliet, so I presume it’s because butchering some French is an idle pastime. Keep in mind, yours truly did get laughed out of a post office in Metz when he was at Georgia Tech Lorraine, so the idea isn’t terribly far-fetched.
Anyways, the town of DeKalb is situated 58 miles due west of downtown Chicago. Per Google Earth, this means that DeKalb is actually closer to downtown Chicago than the Athens is to Atlanta. That distance, for completeness’ sake, is 61 miles. For those wanting to pick any nits with the logic, I measured the distances from the Google Earth pin at DeKalb to State and Madison (0 N/S - 0 E/W) and from the Athens pin to Five Points, which municipal code states as the intersection of the four quadrants of Atlanta.
Why is this at all relevant? Well, you see, no one from DeKalb would ever make the pretense that DeKalb is basically Chicago. It’s not. They’re relatively close to each other, sure. But not interchangeable, and that fact is patently obvious. Claiming to be from Chicago would be ridiculous. In fact, anyone from DeKalb, or even towns 50 miles closer to the city would (rightly) get lambasted for saying such a thing. We can save the issues with some other theoretical school that may happen to be located in Athens doing that for another article.
DeKalb is a reasonably-sized place, with about residents 43,000, and is a historic railroad farming town, built off the back growing agricultural products for its larger neighbor to the east. When the time came to found a state Normal School - a school to instruct teachers - the original was founded in Normal, Illinois is 1857. However, with the explosive growth of Chicago, the need for teachers in the state increased, so a new school closer to the rapidly expanding northern half of the state was founded, and the burgeoning town on the Chicago and Northwestern mainline west towards Iowa was selected. This came in 1895.
In 1899, they participated in football for the first time. Their first game came against DeKalb High School, which I mention simply because their mascot is a barb, like barbed wire, which I think it pretty cool.
Like much of mid-major football in the first half of the twentieth century, their early history was a bit of a muddled mystery. They were in and out of conferences and were quite inconsistent on the field. However, by the end of the Roaring Twenties, they had settled under the leadership of George Evans, a classic football coach-turned-everything coach-turned athletic director type. He led the Huskies to five conference titles in his quarter century at the helm from 1929-1950. His teams amassed a record of 132-70-20, good for a .640 record. After his retirement from coaching, Howard Fletcher led the team the 1963 NCAA College Division title, roughly equivalent of today’s Division II. After years of barnstorming as an independent, they joined the MAC in 1972. Though they are members again these days, they would come and go from the MAC, leaving in favor of independence in the middle of the 1980s, hot on the heels of a dominating conference title in 1983. They briefly joined the Big West on their way back to the MAC in 1997.
This independent, self-reliant Northern Illinois is largely one built on a constant desire to build their stature in the college football world, or at least a spirit that pervaded that of NIU in the latter half of the twentieth century. Ironically, they would find their most poignant form of national relevance by way of their association with the MAC, the conference they left in order to find greener pastures in the 1980s. The modern golden age of NIU football undoubtedly came from 2010-2018. Jerry Kill’s last NIU team won a division title, but his successor Dave Doeren led the team even higher, following adding back-to-back conference titles and peaking with an appearance in the 2012 Orange Bowl, in which they were demolished by Florida State. Though he left for North Carolina State following that remarkable season, Rod Carey added another pair of conference titles in 2014 and 2018.
It is following that 2018 season that we rejoin the narrative with the Tech lens.
As mentioned, this football game was scheduled in 2019. At the time, NIU was fresh off their fourth conference title eight years. However, their story since 2018 serves as an excellent case study on how difficult it is to sustain success as Group of 5 school.
Even though when Kill was poached by Minnesota, Doeren was able to sustain baseline success, and when he, too, departed, Carey added to the trophy case, consistently finding top-tier coaches is a difficult endeavor. And after that 2018 MAC title, Carey was snagged by the Temple Owls to follow up the undefeated tenure of Manny Diaz as head coach of the Owls. Diaz, of course, was Geoff Collins’ successor for about two weeks in the fall of 2018. So, by the usual “college football is a fascinatingly small world” trope, Northern Illinois having collapsed from an 8 win MAC champion team in 2018 to a winless squad in 2020 is indirectly Georgia Tech’s fault. Funny how that works out sometimes.
The reality of being a successful G5 program means constantly having good assistants and head coaches poached by bigger opportunities elsewhere. The fact that three coaches in a row were able to sustain the same high standard is the outlier in this scenario. So, the rhetorical question that must be asked is simple - what on Earth happened in the transition from Carey to Thomas Hammock to implode one of the most consistent mid majors of the past decade?
Like a lot of things, the answer isn’t quite so simple.
The first caveat is that NIU probably was a bit unlucky last year to finish without any wins, whatsoever. Three of the losses were within a touchdown and a two point conversion. Sure, the other three were rather one-sided, but this isn’t a team that was played off of the field every week. And, even then, the fact that these all came against MAC opponents with a season that wasn’t even reinstated until the ACC was on the verge of Week 3 shows that the COVID results can be taken with a grain of salt.
In terms of production, a huge proportion of the roster was made up of underclassmen last year, which remains true this year. The linemen, with another year to develop, should do better in blocking schemes in a system headed up by Hammock, who himself was a running back in DeKalb. After graduating, he spent time with his Minnesota, Wisconsin, his alma mater, and the Baltimore Ravens, all with the running backs. The top two options in the backfield return for the 2021 season in the form of Harrison Waylee and Erin Collins.
However, the passing game was also inconsistent last year, and though incoming transfer Rocky Lombardi has a championship-caliber name, he was prone to throwing interceptions in his time at Michigan State. This would seem to be a weakness that opposing defenses could pressure, and forcing the running game off of schedule is likely an important part of that. That said, the Huskies were relatively successful in the red zone when they managed to find it, going 17 for 18 across their six games.
Here’s where I’ll insert an aside to mention their website. Is weird to see Northwestern Medicine advertising on the NIU athletics website? I’d say yes.
Their kicker, John Richardson of Chicago Catholic League powerhouse Brother Rice, was their leading scorer last season, and he matched his sophomore campaign’s field goal and extra point percentages, going 77.8% and 100%, respectively. At the very least, they have a reliable option to put the ball between the uprights.
Honestly, being able to name drop Brother Rice is a fun change for someone that came to Tech and had to learn to nod along and understand when folks mentioned Grayson, Norcross, Lowdnes, or Milton. Today only!
On the defensive side of the ball, the Huskies had 5 interceptions were scattered between four players, making the counting stats a bit harder to read. Similarly, their leader in sacks, Devonte O’Malley, a true freshman out of Midlothian, only tallied two, but he’s back. With much of the defense from last year returning, though, one figures that with another year to develop and a normal offseason, some improvement is due. In particular, the secondary returns essentially everything, including last year’s leader in tackles Jordan Gandy, a third year player originally with South Dakota State.
Admittedly, a lot of this very broad overview relies on counting stats and some high-level looks, but I think that the theme of “team trying to rapidly restart a season in the middle of a talent reload” is pretty accurate to describe the team. The podcast Split Zone Duo, a FTRS staff favorite, recently did their MAC preview and they seemed to be much more bearish on the Huskies than this cursory overview has made yours truly. In it, a clear and memorable takeaway stuck out - 2-10 would be an improvement from a barebones roster, but they have a path to 4 to 6 wins. They also note that Hammock was an NFL position coach and that those types of hires often have mixed success, and that NIU has historically been able to out-recruit other MAC schools.
I think this slightly more pessimistic outlook is a good contrast to my ultimate conclusion. Yes, Hammock is an NFL position coach. However, he’s an NIU alum, former NIU coach, and has stops at two Big Ten programs, and only had one normal year before the world turned upside down. Yes, the roster was sparse last year, but they return almost all of it and have a more normal offseason this time around. They have historically been able to recruit well throughout the Great Lakes because of their upper-tier G5 reputation on the field and off of it, and are located in one of the more underrated locations for football talent, Chicagoland.
All that said, I still don’t think this is a team that’s ready to compete for a MAC title again quite yet. While I think the two or four wins from the SZD fellows is a bit low, I can’t see the bar being much higher than 6, either. Let’s call it a more confident six win ceiling and a higher floor. It’s not a prove-it year for Hammock, but hitting the absolute floor again would certainly make his seat quite hot. I don’t find those unrealistic expectations from the fanbase in DeKalb, either.
44 Days ‘til Kickoff