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The Big USF vs. Northern Illinois Preview

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NIU might be down this year, but they can still put up points in a hurry. This isn't a team to sleep on.

Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

Northern Illinois might be the most quietly consistent program in the FBS. The Huskies have won a remarkable six straight MAC West division titles, and an 8-6 year in 2015 snapped a five-season streak in which NIU notched at least 11 wins per year. Sure, some of these records were inflated due to playing in the MAC, but the Huskies have had some great teams in the last decade-- highlights include a 2012 squad led by all-everything QB Jordan Lynch that crashed the BCS, and a 2013 team that was a loss in the MAC Champion Game away from doing it again. I don't care who you play; five straight years of double-digit wins is remarkable.

Year Record S&P+
2015 8-6 69
2014 11-3 80
2013 12-2 64
2012 12-2 53
2011 11-3 44
2010 11-3 45


The good news? USF picked a very convenient time to schedule NIU. The Huskies weren't necessarily worse than usual in 2015 (see the S&P+ rankings above), but the competition in the MAC caught up to them a little bit and NIU needed a ton of bounces to go their way to reach the division title game once again, where they were walloped by a far superior Bowling Green team. Add in a season-opening loss in triple overtime to a generally putrid Wyoming team, and it's easy to feel like the Huskies may have plateaued a bit under fourth-year head coach Rod Carey.

That aforementioned loss last week was a tough one to swallow-- Wyoming went 2-10 in 2016 and is currently ranked 111th in S&P+. The Huskies probably expected to roll them, but a leaky defense allowed the Cowboys to put up 27 points in regulation, and the Huskies missed two field goals in OT to wind up on the wrong side of a 40-34 loss. Look at the game film alone, and NIU doesn't seem too imposing.

But it's never wise to make such sweeping statements after just one week of the season. The Huskies are dangerous-- especially on offense-- and are only four years removed from an Orange Bowl appearance and three years removed from an undefeated regular season. Sleep on them at your peril.

Peripherals

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. NIU D) S&P+ (USF D vs. NIU O) S&P+ (ST)
USF 42 44 60 79
NIU 79 108 55 119


This isn't a dream matchup for the USF offense, but it's not far off. The Northern Illinois defense did not look great against Wyoming-- particularly in the passing game, where they let first-time Cowboys starter Josh Allen complete 66% of his passes for 245 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Wyoming put up gaudy running numbers as well, rushing for 243 total yards, but this was seriously inflated by the Cowboys attempting over and over and over to run the ball-- the Huskies only conceded 4.3 yards per carry. For the second week in a row, USF's opponent appears weakest in the secondary. It also doesn't hurt that they're even worse than USF on special teams.

The NIU offense is dangerous, though, and could very well match the Bulls point-for-point. To wit:

When NIU Runs...

Team Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
NIU Offense 92 62
USF Defense 35 7


For all the fireworks that the NIU offense is capable of putting up, it's probably not going to start with the ground game. The Huskies have plenty of options on paper-- senior Joel Bouagnon was a touchdown machine in 2015, rushing for a steady 1,283 yards (just 4.5 yards per carry) and a remarkable 18 scores. Jordan Huff was more dynamic last season, rushing for 653 yards and averaging 7.6 YPC... but the two backs combined for just 58 yards on 19 carries (3.1 YPC) against Wyoming. That's not going to get it done against anyone, least of all a USF defensive front that shut down a decent Towson running attack completely in week one. USF can probably make NIU one-dimensional, but that might not matter-- they've got two stars in the passing game that can carry them.

When NIU Passes...

Team Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
NIU Offense 50 37
USF Defense 11 119


We know that USF's susceptible to getting burned in the passing game-- this is largely thanks to an iffy pass rush. They're going to have their hands full against Huskies' signal-caller Drew Hare. Hare recovered from an ACL injury last year that cut his season short, but he's a player. He's thrown for 32 touchdowns to just six interceptions over the last two seasons, and that's including him missing half of the 2015 season. He's got a decent arm, isn't afraid to fit the ball into tight windows, and has enough mobility to make life even more annoying for defenses. He threw for 329 yards and three scores against Wyoming and ran for another... and that was with virtually no help from the run game.

The worst part? His best receiver is even better. 6'4" senior Kenny Golladay is an absolute nightmare matchup. He hauled in 73 passes for 1,129 yards in 2015, and followed that up by having the game of his life against Wyoming, with 10 catches for 144 yards and two scores PLUS six rushes for 82 yards an a touchdown. Golladay is tall, fast, and has great hands. After not seeing an FBS-level receiver against Towson, this weekend USF will be matched up with one of the best ones they'll face all year. It's a very nice, and very frightening, test for the USF secondary.

Of course, I trust that the secondary will be up to the task-- it's the pass rush we need to worry about. USF's Pass Defense IsoPPP, which measures how well a team limits big plays through the air, ranks 119th in the nation. When Towson needed a pass on third and longs, they could usually get it against the Bulls, which speaks to the lack of pressure they're getting. The Bulls either need to improve that or blanket Golladay to slow NIU's passing attack; the latter seems awfully difficult, so hopefully the pass rush improves this week.

When I say that slowing Golladay is key to slowing NIU's offense, I mean it: only three other receivers caught a pass in NIU's first game, and they totaled eight receptions between them-- two less than Golladay had by himself. This is Andre Davis in 2013-14 type stuff, except in this case Andre Davis also regularly runs the ball. Yikes.

When USF Runs...

Team Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 46 45
NIU Defense 81 65


I'm legitimately afraid of NIU's offense-- okay, really just the Hare-Golladay connection, but that basically is NIU's offense-- but I love USF's offense against NIU's defense. The Huskies aren't terrible against the run, but they've been a traditional bend-but-don't-break outfit, so there are going to be plenty of yards to be had. NIU didn't break much against Wyoming, but they still gave up 245 yards. If Marlon Mack is healthy, the Bulls should have a lot of success against the Huskies' front. If he's not... well, they should still have a good amount of success between Quinton Flowers, Darius Tice, and D'Ernest Johnson, but perhaps the Huskies will be able to limit big plays if Mack's game-breaking speed is on the sideline.

When USF Passes...

Team Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 86 11
NIU Defense 116 74


USF faces another team with a not-so-hot secondary, but they weren't really able to take advantage the way I hoped they would last week. They found a handful of big plays, but weren't able to move the ball in the intermediate passing game against possibly the weakest secondary they'll see all year. This wasn't for lack of trying-- the Bulls tried to get Flowers comfortable with a lot of 10-15 yard passes, but he missed a handful. I'd be more comfortable if USF reverted to attacking with short passes and screens; based on the way the NIU secondary has played, there will be plenty of yards for the taking if USF can get their athletes the ball on the edge.

Summary & Prediction

Before the season started, I made a remark on Twitter that there wasn't a single "gimme" game on USF's schedule this season, including Towson and NIU. There are plenty of games they should win, yes, but there's no one in the nonconference slate nearly as bad as FAMU was last year, and AAC bottom-feeders like UCF and SMU should be much improved.

I stand by that statement today. There isn't a team on USF's schedule that I don't think could beat them given the right bounces, NIU included.

That doesn't mean I see it happening. I don't think NIU will find much success at all running the ball against USF, but I highly doubt that Hare and Golladay don't find a way to move the ball, even with the defense keyed in on stopping them. I'm being a bit conservative on my prediction here, solely because we haven't seen USF and Quinton Flowers clicking on all cylinders against a poor secondary yet. I don't think they necessarily need to do so to win this game, but it might be a tight one if they don't, especially if the Bulls have issues getting the run game going without Marlon Mack. The opposite applies as well: If Flowers is hitting his passes, this could turn into a blowout in a hurry.

USF 38, Northern Illinois 20