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Is NIU still the safest bet in the MAC, despite all this change?

The Huskies haven’t made a bad hire in about 25 years. Can Thomas Hammock win big like his predecessors?

NCAA Football: Eastern Michigan at Northern Illinois
Spencer Tears
Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

There are worse parting gifts than another conference title.

After six seasons, Rod Carey left to take the Temple job when it opened for a second time this offseason. He left accomplishments that any successor would do well to match: two MAC titles, four division crowns, 52 wins. He held the fort as NIU had to deal with its third coaching change in seven years and offered some stability. NIU’s last four hires have each enjoyed at least one season of double-digits wins and a brief stay in the AP top 25. Carey continued that. He even won the MAC on his way out the door.

Still, despite the undeniable success, it felt as if NIU and Carey were ready for something new. And it was hard to deny that the Huskies were pretty far away from their peak.

Carey inherited a program coming off a 12-win season and its first major bowl bid (an Orange Bowl berth against Florida State) under Dave Doeren. Carey kept the wins coming for a while, but the product was slipping. After ranking 34th in S&P+ in Doeren’s final season, the Huskies fell to 56th, then 72nd, then 82nd. They went 23-5 in his first two years but thereafter just 29-24, with an average ranking of 80.8.

That’s decent living for a MAC team, but while the defense was peaking with two top-30 Def. S&P+ finishes in 2017-18, the NIU calling card fell flat. After scoring an average Off. S&P+ ranking of 45th from 2010-16, the Huskies fell to 112th in 2017 and 117th in 2018.

NIU has long been the safest bet in the MAC West, but 2018’s title run was a product of a shaky division. After an 0-3 start in non-conference play, The Huskies won their first five conference games by a total of 23 points, smoked Toledo to clinch the division, then threw it into cruise control and lost tight games against Miami (Ohio) and WMU. They ended up a game ahead of EMU, Toledo, and WMU.

In the MAC title game, they played possum against a Buffalo that was superior on paper, then charged back 20-0 over the final 16 minutes to score a 30-29 win. They got pummeled by UAB in the Boca Raton Bowl, and three weeks later, Carey left for Philadelphia.

In a strange way, Thomas Hammock faces a high bar and a low one at the same time. NIU hasn’t finished better than 75th in S&P+ since 2014, which suggests room for growth, but the Huskies have also won their division seven times in the last nine years.

The hire of Hammock appears to acknowledge the need for change, though. With how good the defense has been, NIU could have attempted to promote defensive coordinator Jeff Knowles or predecessor Kevin Kane (who took over the SMU defense in 2018). Instead, for better or worse, the school elected for a fresh start.

Hammock is an NIU grad who spent a couple of seasons at his alma mater (running backs coach in 2005-06) before moving up (four years as Minnesota’s RBs coach, three as Wisconsin’s), then to the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens. The 37-year-old New Jersey native is returning to the home of the Corn Fest for his first head coaching stint. He’s the first African-American head coach in NIU history.

Hammock is still completing his staff amid recruiting, but his first hire was inspired. He brought South Dakota State offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness, one of college football’s more interesting offensive minds, east.

But his first team will have to deal not only with a change in culture, but also with a potential shift in strengths. The offense, so weak the last two years, returns almost everyone, while the league’s best defense loses a few difference-makers.

Offense

If your only NIU exposure in 2018 was the MAC Championship, you’re a little bit confused by the summary above. As shaky as NIU’s offense has been, you saw the best version of it in Detroit.

  • Quarterback Marcus Childers went 21-for-33 for 300 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception, and not including sacks he rushed 11 times for 80 yards.
  • Receiver Spencer Tears made amazing catch after amazing catch, snaring two huge touchdowns along the way. Tears and D.J. Brown (combined: 15 targets, 10 catches, 157 yards, four touchdowns) almost inarguably outplayed the magnificent Buffalo receiver duo of Anthony Johnson and K.J. Osborn (23 targets, 10 catches, 190 yards, two touchdowns).

NIU looked brilliant when it counted the most. For most of the rest of the season ... it did not.

I mean, just look at that offensive radar above. The Huskies ranked 124th in Passing S&P+, saved by a great defense and a run game that moved the chains just enough to keep the D in favorable field position. Even with the game in Detroit, Childers’ passer rating was an abysmal 112.4 for the season, well outside of the national top 100.

There’s potential, though. And if Eidsness proved anything at SDSU, it’s that he’ll adapt to the talent. He oversaw a Jackrabbits offense that produced the nation’s first back-to-back-to-back 2,000-yard rusher (Zach Zenner) from 2012-14, then produced a three time Payton Award finalist in quarterback Taryn Christion, who finished his career with more than 11,000 passing yards and 100 passing touchdowns.

SDSU’s offenses played with a physical edge that could work pretty well in DeKalb. Tre Harbison rushed for 1,000 yards last year and carries some heft (227 pounds), and backup Marcus Jones gained at least four yards on 54 percent of his carries. Childers is pretty burly, too (6’0, 222) and doesn’t mind lowering his shoulder at times.

NCAA Football: MAC Championship-Northern Illinois at Buffalo
Marcus Childers
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The line has to replace all-conference performers in tackle Max Scharping and center Luke Shively, but four players return after starting at least eight games last year, and three are at least 6’4, 306 pounds. There will be quite a bit of young heft on the two-deep as well.

NIU’s success will come down to whether the Huskies can pass when they need to, and it’s hard to predict that going well. Childers’ sack and interception rates were too high, and his completion rate was too low, and now his top two receivers (Wesley and D.J. Brown) are gone. Can Tears bottle up his Detroit performance? Can the Huskies get something steadier out of sophomore targets Dennis Robinson and Cole Tucker? Might three-star JUCO Tyrice Richie make an immediate difference? Or one of a couple of mid-three-star freshmen (Fabian McCray, Justin Clark)?

The defense will probably regress, but I’m not sure the offense can make up for it.

Defense

When it comes to knocking you off-schedule, then harassing your quarterback, NIU had maybe the best mid-major defense in 2018. Among Group of 5 programs, the Huskies trailed only Fresno State, Appalachian State, and Marshall in Def. S&P+, and they were sixth overall in Standard Downs S&P+.

End Sutton Smith was the No. 1 difference maker here. In two seasons, he posted otherworldly stats: 56 tackles for loss, 29 sacks, 53.5 run stuffs. That’s nearly a team’s worth of production from one guy, and with little to prove at the college level, he declared for the NFL draft.

Was he the reason for NIU’s success, an Ndamukong Suh-like talent around which an opponent had to game plan, opening up opportunities? Or was he merely the best player on a defense that boasted other havoc creators?

The answer will dictate whether NIU is a MAC contender in 2019. Smith, fellow end Josh Corcoran (who sneaked in for 10 sacks), and corners Jalen Embry and Tifonte Hunt are gone, but that’s almost literally it. NIU is scheduled to return:

  • Tackles Weston Kramer, Jack Heflin, and Ben LeRoy, who combined for 15 TFLs, nine sacks, and 24 run stuffs on the interior and might have been NIU’s best defenders after Smith and Embry.
  • OLB Antonio Jones-Davis, who flew around and recorded 14.5 TFLs, six pass breakups, and another 19.5 run stuffs. Two other senior LBs (Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux Jr.) combined for another 10 TFLs.
  • Every safety, including seniors Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster (combined: 104.0 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and 10 passes defensed).
NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Iowa
Antonio Jones-Davis
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

You can’t lose Smith and both corners and not regress a bit. But the new coordinator, whoever he ends up being, will still have more to work with than most MAC coordinators, I think.

Special Teams

Special teams is one area where Hammock can quickly outdo his predecessor, but it might take a year or two to develop the right personnel. NIU ranked 10th in Special Teams S&P+ in Doeren’s last season but never topped 86th under Carey.

Place-kicker Andrew Gantz was the bright spot of last year’s 102nd-ranked unit, but he’s gone. Punter Matt Ference didn’t allow many returns but still ranked only 93rd in punt efficiency (which was solid compared to the kick return game).

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug Illinois State NR 21.5 89%
7-Sep at Utah 17 -18.5 14%
14-Sep at Nebraska 45 -9.7 29%
28-Sep at Vanderbilt 53 -8.2 32%
TBD Akron 124 21.8 90%
TBD Ball State 110 14.8 80%
TBD Eastern Michigan 96 8.3 69%
TBD Western Michigan 75 2.4 56%
TBD at Central Michigan 122 15.4 81%
TBD at Miami (Ohio) 93 1.8 54%
TBD at Ohio 82 -1.2 47%
TBD at Toledo 78 -1.8 46%
Projected S&P+ Rk 76
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 120 / 19
Projected wins 6.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.6 (82)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 101
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -0.2
2018 TO Luck/Game -0.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 70% (64%, 75%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 7.4 (0.6)

The numbers like what NIU has. The Huskies will begin projected second overall in the MAC, just behind WMU and just ahead of Toledo and others. You could make the case that, until Smith went pro, they were a year ahead of schedule in winning the conference last year, considering what they were scheduled to bring back this year.

That said, there are plenty of red flags. The defense has almost nowhere to go but down, and while I really like Hammock’s offensive coordinator hire, it’s worth pointing out that Hammock hasn’t coached at the college level since 2013 and hasn’t coached in the MAC since 2006. There might be some adjustment time, especially since the Huskies have to travel to the teams projected third, fourth, and fifth in the conference.

It’s not hard to see the Husky on the helmet, though, and simply assume NIU will be alright. They’ve survived coaching changes before, and the last time they made an undeniably unsuccessful hire, Hammock was about 10 years old. If you want to give this team the benefit of the doubt, I can’t blame you.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.