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NIU has an awesome defense ... and one of 2018’s hardest mid-major schedules

NIU rode a damn near reckless defense to 8 wins in 2017, and most of it returns this fall.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at San Diego State
Sutton Smith
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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.

In my 2017 Northern Illinois preview, I expressed cautious optimism. Head coach Rod Carey, then entering his fifth season, had overseen a tumble from 11 wins to eight to five over a two-year span, but it was in many ways forgivable. The Huskies had experienced so many damn QB injuries in a rather short amount of time that there was just no way to generate consistency.

Once eliminated from bowl contention late in 2016, they began to show a spark. They won four of their last five games to turn a 1-6 start into a more respectable 5-7 finish, and heading into 2017 it appeared that if they could just keep a quarterback upright, they could make some waves again.

Then they lost their starting quarterback to injury in the first game of the season.

Ryan Graham beat out Daniel Santacaterina for the starting job, threw for 190 yards and rushed for 99 in a tight loss to Boston College, then left with an elbow injury. Santacaterina took over, oversaw an easy win over Eastern Illinois, and got out of the way as Nebraska’s offense imploded in a 21-17 upset win in Lincoln.

Was Santacaterina the answer? Perhaps not — he threw three picks and took four sacks in a six-point loss at San Diego State and threw an early pick against Kent State. Hopeful for a spark, Carey voluntarily changed QBs. True freshman Marcus Childers did very little through the air against Kent State, but he ignited the running game in an easy win. Santacaterina threw just four passes the rest of the year, and Graham threw none.

Really, the continued QB carousel was a distraction. Childers kept the job the rest of the year, and NIU won six of seven, but those things were only so related. While NIU was going through its nearly two straight years of QB injury and shuffling, the Huskies were also figuring out how to thrive without the QB position.

A speedy defense, which had been the key to so many wins during NIU’s six-year streak of MAC West titles, was beginning to find its groove again. The Huskies forced 17 turnovers in the first seven games of the season and finished ranked fourth in success rate, ninth in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 20th in Adj. Sack Rate, and 23rd in overall havoc rate. They got after you, they created lovely field position for their offense, and Childers, with lower sack and interception rates than Santacaterina, avoided mistakes just well enough to put some points on the board.

The result: a bounce. NIU hopped back up to its 2016 win total (eight) and reestablished its MAC bona fides, coming within a late loss to CMU of a tie for the division title. Santacaterina transferred, but Childers is back, as are a lot of skill guys and the entire offensive line.

More importantly, though defensive coordinator Kevin Kane left for SMU, a lot of the defensive attackers return: All-American end Sutton Smith, outside linebacker Jawuan Johnson, end Josh Corcoran, etc. The personality we saw for most of the last two months of the season should return intact. That’s very good news. Now if only Carey and NIU could get fans to notice.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at San Diego State
Rod Carey
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 NIU offensive radar

You could almost say NIU turned into Kent State last year. The good Kent State of a few years ago, anyway. While much of the MAC was going points-crazy, the Golden Flashes briefly figured out how to win games with defense, defense, an occasionally fun run game, and defense. It was MAC-style Tresselball, with the primary role of the offense being to avoid negative plays and set the defense up with decent field position.

That describes what NIU did last year, aside from the fact that the Huskies continued to play with MACtion-style tempo for some reason. They didn’t move forward all that well, but they ranked 51st in stuff rate and rose to 72nd (from much lower) in Adj. Sack Rate with Childers behind center. They also dominated in short yardage, making the most of their opportunities to move the chains.

That was about all they did well, but it was something. With Childers, beginning in the fifth game of the year, NIU did improve a little bit. But it was only a little.

  • First four games (2-2): Avg. points per game: 26.8 | Avg. percentile performance: 47%
  • Next seven games (6-1): Avg. points per game: 33.0 | Avg. percentile performance: 52%

Once the Huskies trailed off at the end, scoring 24 against CMU and 14 against Duke, the averages basically ended up being about the same with Childers as without. Still, holding steady — and again, making fewer crippling mistakes — with a true freshman at QB is pretty impressive. And the experience Childers put together last year could pay off down the line (insert obvious asterisk here: as long as he stays healthy).

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Duke vs Northern Illinois
Marcus Childers (15) and Luke Shively (64)
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Childers even got an advance taste of life without Jordan Huff. The tailback was NIU’s best skill guy when healthy, but he missed three games during NIU’s hot streak, and NIU remained mostly hot. Against BGSU, backups Tommy Mister and Dwayne Milton rushed 23 times for 177 yards. Against EMU, Childers carried the load with 278 passing yards and 75 non-sack rushing yards. Against Toledo, Marcus Jones rushed 14 times for 80 yards.

Jones, Mister, and Tre Harbison all return, even if Huff does not. They didn’t flash a lot of explosiveness, but their combined 46 percent rushing success rate topped Huff’s 45 percent. Mister and Harbison were two of the top recruits of the Carey era, and there appears to be both upside and muscle here (all four are at least 204 pounds, and Harbison was listed at 220 last year).

Perhaps as importantly, all the members of a large line return as well. The six guys who started at least four games up front averaged 6’5, 307, and both left tackle Max Scharping and left guard Jordan Steckler earned all-conference votes.

Having a steadier run game will be lovely, but we’ll see what kind of upside the passing game has. Only two of last year’s top five targets return — 6’0 junior Spencer Tears and 5’9 senior D.J. Brown — but they were two of the more efficient options. And it’s not too late for senior Jauan Wesley to become a more consistent weapon.

Wesley caught 30 passes for Iowa State in 2015 and made the most of his chances in 2017 — among his 10 catches were a 70-yard touchdown against Ball State and a 67-yard score against Duke in the bowl. He was still targeted only 15 times all year, though.

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Duke vs Northern Illinois
Jauan Wesley
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Carey’s recruiting appears to have rebounded. Per the 247Sports Composite, the number of three-star NIU signings has risen from four to 10 to 14 in the last two classes, and the first place this improvement might bear fruit is in the receiving corps.

There will be seven three-star freshmen and redshirt freshmen here, and with the turnover on the depth chart, there might be opportunities for redshirts like Cole Tucker, Dennis Robinson, or tight end Liam Soraghan or incoming mid-three-star wideout Charles Robinson.

Defense

2017 NIU defensive radar

Goodness, NIU had one hell of a defense last year. Kane’s Huskies had all the most fun characteristics of their recent defenses — speed and damn near foolish aggressiveness — and crafted a much better havoc-to-glitches ratio than in previous years.

MInd you, there were still big plays. NIU allowed 3.8 passes per game of 20-plus yards, 112th in FBS. But it was a worthy trade for ranking eighth in passing success rate, 20th in Adj. Sack Rate, and 20th in overall Passing S&P+. And if possible, they were even more aggressive against the run, ranking third in rushing success rate and 21st in Rushing S&P+.

Most of the havoc guys are back, but the two biggest concerns are depth — NIU was able to absorb some injuries and play a lot of guys last year, and the known cast of characters lost leading tackler Bobby Jones IV, safety Mycal Allen, corner Shawun Lurry, and some second-stringers — and the loss of Kane.

Kane is one of the nation’s better young defensive minds, but it probably isn’t a coincidence that NIU took a huge step forward when Jeff Knowles came aboard. Knowles was a quality control assistant at NC State before moving to DeKalb to take over as LBs coach last year.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Nebraska
Jawuan Johnson (7) and Mykelti Williams (8)
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Despite losing early-season starter Kyle Pugh, NIU LBs went from recording 31.5 TFLs and nine PDs in 2016 to 36.5 and 13, respectively. Jawuan Johnson (18 TFLs, eight PDs, five forced fumbles) was a revelation. But it was impressive that NIU’s LB numbers were able to improve at all, considering how many big plays the line was vacuuming up.

In 2016, NIU linemen recorded 31 TFLs, 15 sacks, and two passes defensed. In 2017: 60, 30, and nine, respectively. Goodness. A lot, but not all, of that improvement came from Sutton Smith.

The former three-star recruit was a bit player as a 208-pound freshman in 2016, playing in all 12 games but recording just 10.5 tackles. But he put on about 20 pounds, inherited more opportunity, and became one of the breakout stars of 2017. He led the nation in tackles for loss with 29.5 — 4.5 more than soon-to-be top-five draft pick Bradley Chubb of NC State — and tied CMU’s Joe Ostman for the national lead in sacks with 14.

Smith came out of nowhere, and he had help. Ben LeRoy, also a sophomore last year, turned into an interior playmaker with 7.5 TFLs, and end Josh Corcoran (8.5 TFLs) remained productive. Tackle Weston Kramer, a true freshman at the time, became a quick contributors, too.

All of these guys return. So do safeties Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster, senior corners Albert Smalls and Jalen Embry, plus a pair of DBs — corner Daniel Isom and safety Trequan Smith — who played big roles as freshmen in 2016 but missed most of last year with injury.

That’s right, NIU lost a lot of intended contributors — Pugh, Isom, Smith — and still improved by 80 spots, from 94th to 14th, in Def. S&P+. Damn.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Nebraska
Ben LeRoy
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

It’s a wonder special teams didn’t cost NIU a couple of football games. Christian Hagan made just nine of 16 field goals, and with punter Matt Ference, NIU was just 100th in punt efficiency. That led to a Special Teams S&P+ ranking of 119th.

Hagan is gone (potentially replaced by Cincinnati transfer Andrew Gantz), and Ference was just a freshman, so perhaps some improvement is possible. But the loss of return man Chad Beebe will probably negate some of those potential gains as well.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Iowa 36 -9.7 29%
8-Sep Utah 28 -6.9 34%
15-Sep Central Michigan 116 14.3 80%
22-Sep at Florida State 18 -14.8 20%
29-Sep at Eastern Michigan 96 3.6 58%
6-Oct at Ball State 117 9.4 71%
13-Oct Ohio 68 2.4 55%
27-Oct at BYU 76 -1.4 47%
1-Nov at Akron 119 10.1 72%
7-Nov Toledo 49 -1.5 47%
14-Nov Miami (Ohio) 82 4.6 60%
20-Nov at Western Michigan 87 1.2 53%
Projected S&P+ Rk 69
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 105 / 36
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.5 (71)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 91 / 101
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 0.2
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.8
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 68% (68%, 69%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.8 (0.2)

NIU has either a great schedule or terrible one. I’m not sure. It’s got plenty of opportunity, though, that much is certain.

The Huskies are projected 69th in overall S&P+ and could rank a lot higher if the offense actually settles in a bit. And they’ll have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves. The non-conference slate features a visit from Utah along with trips to Florida State, Iowa, and BYU, and the MAC schedule includes home games against both Toledo and Ohio, the two best teams in the conference a year ago.

In all, the Huskies are projected to have three likely wins (at Ball State, at Akron, CMU), two likely losses (FSU, Iowa), and seven games projected within a touchdown. Hell, four games are projected within two points. If the defense continues its havoc-heavy ways and the offense grows into itself, this could be an eight- or nine-win season despite schedule difficulty. If the D regresses to the mean and the O doesn’t progress, however, 4-8 or so is on the table.

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