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Why NIU football collapsed in 2016 and could bounce back in 2017

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Northern Illinois’ run might not be done just yet.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northern Illinois
Anthony Maddie (1) and Ryan Graham (17)
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published March 28 and has since been updated.

November 5, 2015:

QB Drew Hare had surgery on a ruptured Achilles tendon after injuring it at Toledo.

November 25, 2015:

Redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Graham, who has been successful in his two previous starts, was injured in the second half, and the Huskies lost, 26-21, to the Bobcats on a chilly Tuesday night at Huskie Stadium. Graham injured his leg on a sack late in the third quarter.

With junior Drew Hare (Achilles) and Anthony Maddie (back) already out for the year with injuries, true freshman Tommy Fiedler was forced to fill in.

September 13, 2016:

Drew Hare's NIU career appears to be over.

A fifth-year senior who spent nine months recovering from the Achilles tear that ended his 2015 season in week nine, Hare suffered injuries to the side and back of his knee in the third quarter of the Huskies' 48-17 loss to South Florida on Saturday, NIU coach Rod Carey announced on Tuesday.

Hare also came down with an ankle injury and was taken off the field on a cart, but it's the knee area that Carey said NIU's medical staff believes will require surgery.

November 16, 2016:

Maddie became the second Northern Illinois University quarterback to suffer a season-ending injury this year when a MRI revealed he had suffered a hairline fracture to the tibia in his left leg during the Huskies' Nov. 1 game against Bowling Green.

Quarterbacks get injured. In certain systems, they are more likely to get injured than in others. But come on.

In the last 18 games or so, NIU has dealt with five quarterback injuries, four season ending. You try winning when you don’t know who your signal caller is going to be.

Three quarterbacks threw at least 45 passes in 2015, and four threw at least 38 in 2016. Eventually, the MAC’s steadiest ship sank, and the Huskies’ run of MAC West titles finally ended.

What a run it was. From 2010 to November 2015, the Huskies went 65-16, winning six consecutive division titles and three conference titles. Toledo and WMU rose, but NIU consistently won the games it needed to win. And they pulled off this run with three head coaches: Jerry Kill (who left for Minnesota in 2011), Dave Doeren (who left for NC State in 2013), and Carey.

Even when the injuries began to take hold, NIU held on as long as possible. The Huskies won at Toledo, 32-27, on November 3, 2015, then beat WMU at home two weeks later. But from almost the moment they clinched the MAC West, they collapsed.

They lost the last three games of 2015 (including a 20-point shellacking to Bowling Green and a 48-point bowl embarrassment to Boise State) and six of the first seven in 2016. The once-unstoppable force lost to Western Illinois and got destroyed, 48-17, by USF.

But then came the rebound. Few noticed, but NIU began to look like NIU again. The Huskies beat Buffalo by 37 and Bowling Green by 25. They lost to Toledo, then took down EMU’s best team in decades and finished with a road win over Kent. From 1-6, they finished 5-7, and they were impressive enough down the stretch to end 77th in S&P+ — third in the MAC and ahead of bowl teams like Southern Miss, South Carolina, Arkansas State, and New Mexico.

The rebound didn’t come quickly enough to make a difference, but might we have witnessed the start of the comeback?

In 2017, NIU returns two of last year’s four quarterbacks, a running back who averaged 6 yards per carry, an all-conference offensive tackle, and all of a decent secondary. There are questions — the receiving corps and defensive front seven have some retooling, and, uh, can a QB remain upright? — but we might not yet have seen the death rattle of the NIU era.


2016 in review

2016 NIU statistical profile.

Because the Huskies never actually settled at QB, their comeback might be even more encouraging. After a truly horrific start, the Huskies began putting pieces together even as a replacement struggled and his replacement got hurt.

NIU vs. Vegas and S&P+

To summarize the shuffling:

  1. Hare began as the go-to passer, 10 months after his Achilles injury. He looked good in an overtime loss to Wyoming (which seemed like an upset at the time but really wasn’t) but struggled against USF and blew out his knee.
  2. Graham struggled. He threw two picks and completed 49 percent of his passes in a loss to San Diego State, then threw for just 109 in the home loss to WIU.
  3. Maddie, who had moved from QB to receiver, nearly saved the WIU game. NIU was down 20-18 in the fourth quarter when he engineered two scoring drives, but WIU made two fourth-down stops to seal the upset. Regardless, Maddie looked decent until the broken foot.
  4. Graham took over again against Toledo but still wasn’t particularly efficient.
  5. Graham split time with redshirt freshman Daniel Santacaterina in the win over EMU, and then Santacaterina went 13-for-23 for 258 yards in the win over Kent State.

NIU’s trend was upward, mostly because the defense got its act together.

  • First 4 games (0-4) — Avg. percentile performance: 37% | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.4, NIU 5.6 (minus-0.8) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-14.8 PPG
  • Next 3 games (1-2) — Avg. percentile performance: 44% | Avg. yards per play: NIU 6.5, Opp 6.1 (plus-0.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-2.4 PPG
  • Last 5 games (4-1) — Avg. percentile performance: 61% | Avg. yards per play: NIU 5.7, Opp 5.1 (plus-0.6) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-8.7 PPG

Offense

NIU offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

NIU’s offense peaked under Maddie, and the ceiling was high enough that, despite all the injury issues, the Huskies finished 50th in Off. S&P+. Perhaps out of necessity, coordinator Mike Uremovich has mastered the art of protecting his quarterback with favorable downs and distances.

The Huskies created a spaceship-looking offensive radar by avoiding negative plays and creating third-and-manageables. They couldn’t pass with any consistency, and their big plays basically consisted of 10-yard rushes and little more.

The offense was at its best under Maddie, though, and it peaked right before he was lost for the season. Against Buffalo and Bowling Green, he completed 36 of 58 (62 percent) for 384 yards, no touchdowns and no sacks, and he rushed 29 times for 218 yards.

Maddie was recently denied a sixth year of eligibility — both a late and unfortunate decision. But Santacaterina is an interesting run threat, and while he was inefficient as a passer (47 percent completion rate), the passing game was quite explosive with him running the show (20.1 yards per completion). Meanwhile, Graham showed decent efficiency potential in November 2015; he completed 61 percent of his passes over a four-game, pre-injury span.

Plus, either Graham or Santacaterina (or redshirt freshman Anthony Thompson, or three-star freshman Rodney Hall) will have an exciting backfield mate.

Jordan Huff teamed well with Joel Bouagnon in 2016 — Bouagnon took on the heavier load, and Huff ripped off more explosive bursts. But after three years as a complementary piece, Huff could be ready for a feature role. He has rushed 206 times for 1,427 yards over three seasons.

NCAA Football: Western Illinois at Northern Illinois
Jordan Huff
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

It’s unclear who might back Huff up, but between junior Tommy Mister, Virginia transfer Tre Harbison, and incoming freshman Jordan Rowell — mid-three-star recruits, all — NIU has three guys with both size and potential. And if the run game is efficient, the play action game could take off.

The line will have a role to play in that, and it’s a good-news, bad-news situation. Junior tackle Max Scharping returns after earning all-conference honors, and in center Luke Shively and guard Jordan Steckler, NIU has two more players who combined for 20 starts last year. But three others are gone, including another all-conference tackle in Levon Myers [update: and 18-game starter Shane Evans has transferred to Purdue].

NIU’s quick passing game is favorable for good sack rates and can do find if the third downs are short. But leaning on the receiving corps on third-and-long probably won’t pay off.

None of the Huskies’ top six targets managed a success rate over 50 percent last year, and now three of those six are gone. Senior wideout Christian Blake and senior tight end Shane Wimann are back, but they combined for just a 41 percent success rate and 6.8 yards per target. Neither is a proven go-to. For that matter, neither is Iowa State transfer Jauan Wesley, but he could be a nice third-and-medium weapon from the slot.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Iowa State
Jauan Wesley
Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Carey signed three three-star receivers, and three-star redshirt Andrew Parchment could be ready for a role soon. But to a degree, NIU’s steady success was built around redshirting recruits. If Blake, Wesley, and upperclassmen like D.J. Brown and Ezra Saffold can carry the load, they will.

NIU will need to plan for the worst at QB, but the Huskies really might be able to lean on the run, no matter the QB.


Defense

NIU defensive radar

It’s easy to focus on the defense when you’re dealing with that much injury and uncertainty, but Kevin Kane’s defense was the reason the Huskies were so much better late. The Huskies fell from 53rd to 94th in Def. S&P+ in his first year, but the fall came early.

The defense surged over the final five games, going from averaging 37.3 points per game to 20.6, and the big difference came on passing downs. The Huskies allowed a 21 percent passing downs success rate against Buffalo, 31 percent against BGSU, 32 percent against Toledo, 30 percent against EMU, and 27 percent against Kent State. Unlike earlier in the year, the breakdowns they did suffer weren’t significant, and the Huskies picked off six passes on passing downs alone in these five games.

The secondary appeared to be the primary reason for renewal, and it would make sense that that unit took a little while to come together. Two of the top three corners heading into the season (Albert Smalls, Anthony Brooks) got hurt, and while there was still experience at the position with 2015 starter Shawun Lurry’s return, it took a while for the corners to settle.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Wyoming
Shawun Lurry
Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s turnover, however, is this year’s massive experience. NIU brings back senior safeties Brandon Mayes and Mycial Allen (combined in 2016: 5.5 tackles for loss, four picks, four breakups), senior corners Lurry and Mayomi Olootu Jr. (2.5 TFLs, six interceptions, 18 breakups), and a batch of sophomores who found some success at times (corner Daniel Isom, safeties Trayshon Foster and Trequan Smith). And now the Huskies get Smalls back as well. Passing downs should be a strength for NIU.

The major question is whether NIU can force them. That wasn’t an issue last year with a run defense that ranked 60th in Rushing S&P+, but four of the top six linemen (including both starting tackles) and three of the top five linebackers are gone. Ends Josh Corcoran and Joe Sanders and OLBs Bobby Jones IV and Alex Schwab should assure that the Huskies still have solid attacking talent.

William Lee is the only DT who made more than five tackles last year, however. From the sophomore trio of Ben LeRoy, Nathan Veloz, and Marcus Kelly, at least one steady contributor needs to emerge.

Meanwhile, middle linebacker Jamaal Payton will also be missed. Sophomore Antonio Jones-Davis and senior Jawuan Johnson combined for 16 tackles last year, and seven of them were behind the line, so perhaps there’s an exciting Payton replacement waiting in the wings. Still, the level of experience at the position drops dramatically either way.

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Northern Illinois
Bobby Jones IV
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

NIU’s special teams unit was only good at one thing in 2016: kick returns. But the primary reason, Arregeros Turner, is gone. Jordan Huff might be fine there, but NIU ranked 115th in Special Teams S&P+ with Turner. Christian Hagan was inconsistent — he was 9-for-13 on field goals under 40 yards — and his kickoffs weren’t quite long enough. Meanwhile, neither punts nor punt returns were particularly productive, and the Huskies now have to look for a new punter.

NIU might improve in this regard simply from a progression-to-the-mean effect, but it’s hard to imagine this unit being a strength.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Boston College 76 -1.4 47%
9-Sep Eastern Illinois NR 17.7 85%
16-Sep at Nebraska 42 -14.5 20%
30-Sep at San Diego State 52 -12.9 23%
7-Oct Kent State 123 11.7 75%
14-Oct at Buffalo 128 11.2 74%
21-Oct at Bowling Green 95 -0.5 49%
26-Oct Eastern Michigan 96 4.8 61%
2-Nov at Toledo 59 -12.2 24%
9-Nov Ball State 90 3.2 57%
15-Nov Western Michigan 74 -1.8 46%
24-Nov at Central Michigan 97 -0.1 50%
Projected S&P+ Rk 86
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 81 / 89
Projected wins 6.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -2.3 (77)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 122 / 112
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / 1.5
2016 TO Luck/Game -1.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 56% (38%, 74%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.9 (-0.9)

NIU has major questions at receiver and on the interior of both lines. If the Huskies don’t have sufficient answers, they won’t be able to either convert passing downs on offense or force them on defense. Plus, there’s that whole “can’t keep a QB healthy to save their lives” issue.

There’s a lot to like, though. The Huskies have experience at QB, at least, and Huff is experienced and explosive. And that secondary could be fantastic. If there’s stability behind center, we might soon enough forget the incredible 1-9 stretch NIU suffered through in 2015-16.

As with any other decent MAC team, though, the Huskies’ fate will be decided by close games. S&P+ gives them a win expectancy between 46 and 61 percent in six games, with three likely wins (Eastern Illinois, Kent State, at Buffalo) and three likely losses (at Nebraska, at SDSU, at Toledo). Split those six, and NIU’s back in a bowl. Find an advantage in most of them, and NIU is back to being NIU.

NIU is 5-10 over its last 15 games. A casual observer might see that and assume Carey and the Huskies have lost their mojo. But a lot of the struggles can be explained, and last year’s late-season charge suggests that the mojo might have only been misplaced for a bit ... if the Huskies have a quarterback, anyway. That’s been an impossible “if” of late.


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