TEAM: Northern Illinois Huskies
2015 RECORD: 8-6, 6-2 MAC (Tied for 1st in Wast. Won tiebreaker)
POSTSEASON: Lost MAC Championship game to Bowling Green, 34-14. Lost Poinsettia Bowl to Boise State, 55-7
HEAD COACH: Rod Carey (5th year)
MAC MEDIA PRESEASON POLL RANK: 3rd in MAC West
Considering its recent history, a Northern Illinois trip to the 2015 MAC Championship game wasn’t all that unlikely. Considering the path it took to get there, however, the Huskies might have been considered very unlikely.
There was bad luck and good, but ultimately, NIU gritted its way to Ford’s Field once again. Injuries accounted for the bad luck. A traffic jam of good teams atop the MAC West ended up being good luck as Northern Illinois beat out three other foes in a tiebreaker.
Injuries stymied the Huskies in a championship game setback and didn’t help in a bowl game blowout loss.
All that is in the past now, and . . .
BIG PICTURE STAT OVERVIEW
Scoring offense: 4th (31.1 ppg)
Scoring defense: 7th (27.6 ppg)
Total offense: 7th (398.5 ypg)
Total defense: 10th (418.4 ypg)
Turnover margin: 6th (+2/0.14 per game)
Huskie fans know well the injury issues of 2016. Starter Drew Hare completed 63.8 percent of his passes, good for 1,462 yards and 14 TDs against just four interceptions before sustaining a season-ending injury against Toledo.
Ryan Graham came on and not only pulled out the win at UT, but also victories at Buffalo and Western Michigan.
Graham was then injured in a home loss to Ohio. With Anthony Maddie also out of the picture, the Huskies were forced to go with walk-on freshman Tommy Fiedler (the team’s 5th option at season’s start) in the championship game, while Bowling Green won behind one of the nation’s top passers – Matt Johnson.
Not only should Hare and his backups be back for another title run this season, the offense is loaded with experience and talent at other skilled positions.
Kenny Golladay earned Second Team All-MAC honors and figures to have some big days with classmate Hare back at the helm. Golladay (6-4, 213) led the team with 73 receptions for 1,129 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2015. Aregero Turner, MAC Special Teams Player of the Year, was second with 39 catches for 343 yards. Chad Beebe allows the Huskies to put three senior receivers on the field along with a senior QB.
Huskie football also loves the ground game, of course, and MAC First Teamer Joel Bouagmon (6-2, 228, Sr) returns at RB after gaining 1,324 yards with 18 TDs last year. Junior Jordan Huff owned 660 yards with eight scores.
There is a question or two up front after the departure of Aidan Conlon and Andrew Ness, both four-year starters. Senior Levon Meyers should anchor the line, which still includes three returning starters.
NIU’s defense looked good early last year, and it enabled the Huskies to hang with Ohio State (20-13 loss) and Boston College (17-14 loss). Injuries, among other things, eventually took their toll and opponents found paydirt more often at season’s end.
Key personnel losses include lineman Perez Ford and stellar linebacker Boomer Mays – both First Team All-MAC selections.
Overall, six starters are back on defense, with seniors Mario Jones, Ladell Flemming and Austin Smaha providing experience.
Seniors Jamaal Pyton and Sean Foliard will likely be joined by sophomore Renard Cheren.
As for the secondary, that group includes an All-American in Shawun Lurry. He led the nation with nine interceptions last year and could be joined by former Iowa cornerback Jalen Embry to give NIU a very dynamic duo. Senior Brandon Mayes is a returning safety.
Christian Hagan was a First Team All-MAC selection in 2015 and returns for his junior season. He was good on 14 of 18 field goals with a long of 52.
Barring another spate of injuries to critical players, the Huskies will be right back in the hunt again this year. Western Michigan may have gotten the media nod to win it all, but nobody is going to count NIU out until the mathematics department declares the Huskies officially done.