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Hawkeye Football Opponent Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies

The Hawkeyes close out non-conference play against a familiar program under new leadership.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

As we countdown the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season, we’ll be previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. While the season may seem far in the distance, we’re currently nine weeks from our first game week of the year.

Our fourth entry in our series of previews is Iowa’s Week 4 matchup against a familiar non-conference opponent, the Northern Illinois Huskies, under a new head coach.

Northern Illinois Huskies

2019 Record: 5-7, (4-4), T-3rd in MAC West

The Northern Illinois Huskies had a difficult year in first-year head coach (and NIU alum!) Thomas Hammock’s inaugural season as a head coach, after former head coach Rod Carey left the program in 2018 to be the head coach at Temple.

The first-time head coach, who will celebrate his 40th birthday next week, came back to his alma mater after assistant coaching stints as the running backs coach at NIU, the running backs coach — and then co-offensive coordinator — at Minnesota, and then four years as the running backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens before returning to DeKalb.

His initial season was a bit of a slog at 5-7 overall, but the Huskies did manage to get a 4-4 record in MAC conference play, good enough for a third place tie in the West division. But according to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, it looks like the Huskies might be in store for another year of rebuilding mode after what was easily the most successful decade in program history.

Key Departures

The running game was one of Hammock’s squad’s best aspects last season, thanks to Tre Harbison, the program’s first 1,000+ yard rusher since 2015. He accumulated 1,034 yards and eight touchdowns on 206 carries, earning him second-team All-MAC honors, but transferred to Charlotte for his final season of eligibility.

And that’s just the tip of the sword of what was a brutal offseason of departures for the Huskies. In the span of one day, the program lost three starters to the transfer portal. The largest of those losses was probably center CJ Perez, who left to play for his former coach at Temple for his final year of eligibility. Tight end Mitchell Brickman, expected to be one of the program’s best returners on offense, transferred to USF as a graduate transfer. And finally as we all know, starting defensive tackle Jack Heflin fulfilled a lifelong dream and joined Iowa’s roster as a graduate transfer late last month. He’ll also be joined by fellow DE Matt Lorbeck, as announced just a few weeks ago.

Pretty brutal, without adding to the fact that the defense also lost its leading defensive tackler in Mykelti Williams at safety, and fourth-leading tackler Trayshon Foster at the other safety spot.

Thankfully, the team does have some returning talent...

Key Returners

Check out this paragraph from Bill Connelly about last year’s NIU squad’s struggles with depth and attrition:

“Quarterback Ross Bowers, a Cal transfer, missed three games, nine different offensive linemen started at least one game, and a trio of star linebackers — Kyle Pugh, Antonio Jones-Davis, and Lance Deveaux Jr. — combined to play in just nine games.”

One thing to appreciate there, I suppose, is the number of players who got valuable in-game experience. Ross Bowers returning at quarterback will certainly be helpful for Hammock’s squad. Although he was a bit inconsistent last year, throwing for 2,130 yards, 7 touchdowns and 8 interceptions on 57.8% passing, and also couldn’t stay healthy, Bowers is an experienced quarterback who will have a reliable weapon in returning wideouts Cole Tucker, who led the team last season with 531 receiving yards, and Tyrice Richie, who logged 415. Losing Perez at center hurts, but the offensive line will still return experienced talent, led by guard Benn Olson and Marques Cox at tackle.

They’ll also be joined on offensive by presumed starting running back Jordan Nettles, who gained 274 yards last season.

As noted above, the defense lost a lot of talent to graduation and the transfer portal. However, one bright spot for the defense will be at linebacker. As Connelly mentions, the position struggled with attrition last season, but will return Kyle Pugh — who missed nearly the entire 2019 campaign — Vinny Labus, who was the defense’s second-leading tackler, and Lance Devaux, who struggled last season and fell on the depth chart. The program also added Duke transfer Greg DeLuca, who is also expected to compete. Corners Jalen McKie and Dillion Thomas also return, but are relatively inexperienced.

In short, a lot of new faces will take the field for the Huskies in the fall.

2020 Preview

The loss of starters across both sides of the ball really hurts NIU heading into 2020. The program will be breaking in a lot of talent in a lot of positions, and that will almost certainly involve some growing pains. Non-conference road matchups against Iowa and Maryland, along with a neutral site game against BYU, all early-ish in the season, are almost certainly blowout losses. Bill Connelly predicts the Huskies to go 4-8 on the season and rates them at 117 in his S&P+ rating system, but also states “...the teams at the bottom of the West not too long ago might be at the top this fall. But unlike perhaps any other division in FBS, you can make the case that any of these six teams could end up in the conference title game — SP+ projects all of them at either 3-5 or 5-3.”

That’s MACtion for ya, baby!

Iowa/NIU Prediction

I’m predicting this to be a blowout win for the Hawkeyes. Who knows what will happen in the two weeks prior to this with two huge rivalry matchups against Iowa State at home and Minnesota on the road in consecutive weeks.

If the Hawks come out of that 1-1, or, God forbid, 0-2, expect a fired up, angry squad looking to seek revenge on any living and breathing person across the line of scrimmage. Add in an relatively inexperienced squad across both sides of the ball, and you have the fixings for a blowout.

Even if the Hawks go 2-0, I still think we see a blowout. 2012 and 2013 matchups aside, Iowa consistently proves to have better talent across the board, and the Huskies just can’t keep up for four quarters. Iowa will be breaking in a lot of talent too, but I expect this game should be an easy win.

Calling it now: 27-10, Iowa.