Northern Illinois went 3-9 last season, but it was a season where the record didn’t really accurately reflect the season. Five of the losses were by ten or fewer points and three other losses were the result of having to start a fourth-string freshman walk-on at quarterback the final month of the season. The Huskies weren’t winning the MAC’s west division with healthier quarterback play, but they probably would have been closer to a bowl team than the final record indicated.
Former Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi (6’3” 227 lbs.) received a medical hardship for his season-ending injuries last season, meaning he’s back for his seventh season of college football. (Redshirted in 2017 plus the 2020 COVID season) Last season, he completed 67% of his passes for five touchdowns with one interception. In 2021, Lombardi completed 58% of his passes for 2,597 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions, plus rushed for 472 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 5.0 yards per carry. This won’t be Lombardi’s first game in Lincoln; he completed 15 of 41 passes for the Spartans in that snowy 9-6 game in 2018 that was arguably Scott Frost’s greatest victory as head coach. Sophomore Ethan Hampton (6’3” 220 lbs.) completed 59% of his passes last season for seven touchdowns with six interceptions in three starts in relief of Lombardi before suffering his own season ending injury. Freshman Nevan Cremascoli (6’2” 215 lbs.) finished the season, completing 48% of his passes for five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Junior Antario Brown (5’10” 218 lbs.) should inherit the starting tailback spot after rushing for 689 yards and seven touchdowns last season, averaging a team leading 6.3 yards per carry. Justin Lynch (6’1” 211 lbs.) moved from quarterback to running back this spring; he averaged 4.4 yards per carry last season. Iowa transfer Gavin WIlliams (5’11” 216 lbs.) averaged 4.1 yards per carry in three seasons with the Hawkeyes.
Sophomore Trayvon Rudolph (5’10” 185 lbs.) caught 51 passes for 892 yards and seven touchdowns in 2021, but missed last season with a knee injury suffered in August. Senior Kacper Rutkiewic (5’8” 175 lbs.) caught 26 passes for 432 yards and six touchdowns in Rudolph’s absence. The only other pass catcher returning is junior tight end Tristen Tews (6’3” 249 lbs.) who caught 15 passes for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Not a lot of experience, but most of last year’s receiving touchdown production is back, and with the return of Rudolph, there’s talent on the top line for 2023.
What will really help Northern Illinois is the return of their entire offensive line, led by first team All-MAC senior right tackle Nolan Potter (6’6” 301 lbs.), who’s been a four year starter. Junior right guard Logan Zschernitz (6’3” 319 lbs.) is a three-year starter who earned third-team All-MAC honors last season. Juniors JJ Lippe (6’5” 311 lbs.) at left guard and Evan Buss (6’6” 309 lbs.) at left tackle also return along with sophomore center Pete Nygra (6’4” 295 lbs.)
A young defensive line should get better, starting with junior defensive tackle Devonte O’Malley (6’2” 278 lbs.), who earned second team All-MAC honors last season with 35 tackles and a team-leading 5.5 sacks. Junior nose tackle James Ester (6’3” 295 lbs.) earned third team All-MAC honors with 28 tackles (six for a loss). Junior defensive end Raishein Thomas (6’4” 268 lbs.) has 112 career tackles in 28 starts.
Linebacker is the position of concern on defense with only sophomore weakside linebacker Devin Lafayette (6’2” 197 lbs.) returning after a 44 tackle season in 2022. Northern Illinois hit the transfer portal hard with Virginia Tech transfer Keshon Artis (6’0” 246 lbs, 31 tackles the last two seasons) and Lamar transfer Tyler Jackson (6’0” 228 lbs, 98 tackles last season).
The secondary could be improved in 2023, led by junior safety CJ Brown (5’11” 190 lbs.), who led the Falcons with 76 tackles last season, earning second team All-MAC honors. He’ll be paired sophomore safety Nate Valcarcel (6’1” 188 lbs.) and junior cornerback Javaughn Byrd (6’0” 191 lbs.) Kansas transfer corner Cam’ron Dabney (5’11” 179 lbs.) had 12 tackles in two starts for the Jayhawks. Also worth noting is that Nebraska-Kearney transfer cornerback Gabriel Amegatcher (6’2” 200 lbs.) is joining NIU this season.
While Colorado is the bigger name opponent, I suspect that Northern Illinois could be a stronger test in September. Trap game for Nebraska? Maybe, if the Huskers play well in their first two nationally televised games, they could look ahead past this team. Which they shouldn’t do, especially since Nebraska hasn’t earned the right to look past an opponent the last eight seasons.
What happens in the Huskers 2023 home opener against Northern Illinois
This poll is closed
Huskers weren’t ready for MACtion.
It’s closer than one would like, but Nebraska gets a home win.
Huskers force the Huskies to roll over as the Big Red is just too much for Northern Illinois.