DeKALB – In a 2016 season full of losses, perhaps there was none that stood out more than a 28-23 loss to Western Illinois, a Football Championship Subdivision school.
Now almost a year later, the Northern Illinois football team faces another in-state FCS school, Eastern Illinois. The game kicks off at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.
Linebacker Jawuan Johnson, hurt in the first quarter against WIU last year, said the Huskies (0-1) need to take the Panthers (1-0) seriously.
“Last year, we knew they were a smaller opponent, but I don’t think we looked at the little things as necessary as we needed to,” Johnson said. “We need to watch film and study our opponent as much as we can.”
Left guard Jordan Steckler agreed, saying the Huskies took Western Illinois for granted.
“Last year in that situation, we didn’t take it quite seriously enough,” Steckler said. “We have to stay heavy in the film room and approach every week the same. We can’t take any shortcuts or make anything different, whether it’s Boston College or Eastern Illinois. Hopefully, using our offensive line we can rush the ball, get more yards and get going that way because it starts up front with us.”
Coach Rod Carey said the Huskies have learned their lesson and are motivated heading into Saturday’s game.
“That’s been brought up, but that’s then,” Carey said. “We understand that, and that’s a motivation factor. Now we have to take that and apply that this year. We have to get off to a fast start and be relentless. Fast start, strong finish – two things we’re trying to do all the time.”
The Huskies were down, 14-0, after one and 28-7 after three quarters to the Leathernecks. The Huskies couldn’t complete the comeback, although quarterback Anthony Maddie came in and made it close.
The last time the Huskies played the Panthers, they completed a comeback. They trailed, 20-0, in the first quarter to Jimmy Garoppolo and EIU, but Jordan Lynch led the comeback for a 43-39 win. While Garoppolo threw for 450 yards and six touchdowns, Lynch threw for 235 yards and ran for another 189.
This year, the Panthers come into the game off a 22-20 win at Indiana State. Mitch Kimble hit Dennis Turner on a
15-yard slant route with three seconds left to secure the win. NIU had the chance for a comeback of its own against Boston College, but Christian Hagan missed a 39-yard field goal in the closing seconds of a 23-20 loss.
Carey said completing the comeback the way the Panthers did is a sign of a good program.
“Eastern ran the 2-minute offense to perfection to get a touchdown,” Carey said. “When you do that, that’s a concern. Those are tough situations to be in. We were just in one and missed a field goal. They were just in one and got a touchdown. It shows the maturity they have on that side of the offense.”
The Huskies enter the game looking to establish the run. They ran for 165 yards Friday against the Eagles, but 60 of those came on a run from Graham. Their two main running backs, Marcus Jones and Jordan Huff, combined for 57 yards on 16 carries.
“There were some holes we were too quick to with the backs,” Carey said. “I thought there were some things there with the quarterback, maybe he could have hit the hole a little different. Tempo in that thing, usually you don’t talk about slowing down your tempo but in some cases we have to let those things develop a little bit.”
Steckler said communication in the run game needs to get better.
“We need to fix up a couple mistakes and just our basic rules,” Steckler said. “I know in our running game we had a couple mix-ups on some of our calls or combo blocks on Friday.”
The game will be the second start this season for Ryan Graham, who also started last year’s game against Western Illinois. This year, Graham won the starting job in camp, and Carey said the job is secure.
Carey said he saw some positive in Graham’s game against BC – 15 for 38, 190 yards, an interception and two touchdowns to go with 99 yards on the ground. He said most of the problems came from the way he executed plays, something he expects to improve.
“At some point does execution qualify as a factor,” about whether to remove Graham, Carey said. “There again, I don’t want to overreact from standpoint of part of his lack of execution was good defense, too, not just his lack of execution. You kind of have to balance those things.”
Receiver D.J. Brown, who had two catches for 31 yards and a touchdown, said he’s confident in Graham and knows what to expect out of the junior.
“We trust him, we love him, and he’s a great leader,” Brown said. “The receivers felt like they could block better on the edge to help the run game, so we want that to be better, but as far as Ryan goes nothing shocked us because we knew what we were going to get out of him; a great player.”