The Rockets Travel to U.S. Cellular Field For A Critical Showdown

The Rockets will look to stay in contention for a MAC Championship as they go on the road at U.S. Cellular Field in South Chicago for a pivotal matchup with the Northern Illinois Huskies. Our Tom Mauter brings us a look inside this season's matchup.

Tom Mauter, staff writer, Rocket Digest, tjmauter@comcast.net

November 9, 2016

 

Who saw this coming?

 

The MAC’s West best team for last half dozen years started this season 0-4 before beginning MAC play. The Northern Illinois Huskies come into the White Sox’s baseball park, Guaranteed Rate Field, with a 3-2 MAC record, 3-6 overall. The Huskies take on the Toledo Rockets this Wednesday night with kickoff at 8:00 p.m. Central Time (9:00 pm ET) and broadcast on ESPN2. This will be the first of what has been named the Huskie Chi-Town Showdown games. More Chicago sports history in the making. 

 

If you think that this will be a NIU – UT clash different from the intensity of the last six years, I suggest you think again. What may be different is the size of the “home team’s” crowd. On November first, the official attendance at Huskie Stadium was 4,790 for senior-night against the Falcons. With student buses limited to 150, the alumni turnout in Chicago will be counted on to turn out a crowd. The Rockets, like wise, we be hosting a pre-game alumni celebration. This should be a great game on so many levels.

 

What has happened recently in DeKalb that isn’t all that surprising is that Head Coach Rod Carey and his Huskies have regrouped. They are on a two-game winning streak, averaging 44.5 points while allowing 13.5 points. Then again, the wins were against Buffalo (2-6, 1-3)) and Bowling Green (1-8, 0-5).  The Bulls are 125th out of 128 teams against the run in the nation, last in the MAC. The Falcons sit at 111th defending the run, 10th in the MAC.

 

You can put those games into the short-term memory column. The bottom line for Northern Illinois is that another loss will drop the Huskies from being able to become eligible for a postseason bowl berth. On a similar note, a Rockets’ loss will end any hope of playing in the MACC game. As usual, this game really matters.

The Huskies on Offense 

The single key factor for Northern’s improvement has to be the development and play of wide receiver-turned-quarterback Anthony Maddie. His passing and running skills have recently reached a point where he is playing with similar skills to those of Chandler Harnish, Jordan Lynch, and Drew Hare, pre-injury.  The NIU motion offense gives Maddie multiple options to run, pitch, or pass. With a strong supporting cast in running and catching the ball, the NIU offense can move the ball and put up points. The offensive line, despite losing two key two-year starters from the 2015 club, has developed into another outstanding unit. Led by senior left tackle Levon Myers and senior left guard Josh Ruka, this group has blended younger starters into a good OL. The right side is anchored by the outstanding sophomore Max Scharping at right tackle. They allowed a total of seven sacks and four quarter back hurries to date. The Huskie offense is now playing with few miscues and penalties – they have not been beating themselves as of late.

 

Anthony Maddie (6’1”, 203#) is not the best running QB in the MAC. That would be Kent State’s Nick Holley. Nor is Maddie the best passing QB in the MAC completing 60% of his passes. Logan Woodside, of course, holds that distinction. But, as a passing and running quarterback, no one in the MAC rivals Maddie’s play now. He is averaging 6.8 yards a carry, a team high of nearly 80 rushing yards per game, and has scored a team-high eight rushing touchdowns. Maddie has thrown eight TD passes with five interceptions and is averaging 173.3 yards per game. The Rockets game will mark his sixth start.

 

Maddie as a runner is quick and rather shifty bringing his wide receiver skills to bear. When he is not running the ball, getting the ball into fast play-makers is the M.O. of the Huskies.

 

Attacking the perimeter both on the ground and via the pass, stretches the field and increases the amount of running by the defensive front. Running backs Joel Bouagnon and Jordan Huff have speed to get to the corners. Both wide receivers, Aregero Turner and Kenny Golladay, will run the ball on jet sweeps effectively getting the edge. Both have run the ball 16 times, each scoring two TDs via the rush, with Golladay averaging 9.8 ypr and Turner close behind with a 7.9 ypr average. 

 

The speed attack continues with Maddie throwing the ball. Throwing to the edges to wide receivers Golladay, Turner, and Christian Blake, is supplemented by hitting running backs Boudagon and Huff out of the backfield on the edge to continue the assault with speed.

 

NIU counters with hard running between the tackles from Joel Boudagon (6’2”, 228#), the team’s leader in rushing attempts, 130, and total yards rushing, 644, for a 5.0 ypc average. Jordan Huff, (5’11”, 218#) keeps things moving with a 6.9 ypc average.

 

While Maddie has a number of options beyond his own two feet, Galloday is his go-to-guy. Kenny Golladay is now the third ranked receiver in the MAC in passing yards per game (98.7) behind WMU’s Corey Davis (112.3) and Rockets’ Cody Thompson (108.7). NIU moves the ball and the sticks with Golladay. The success of the offense is in the short game moving down the field, weaving players into a variety of runs, quick outs, crossing patterns getting into the red zone. The Huskies have scored on 81% of their visits to red zone, 65% of the time for six. By comparison, the Rockets are 92% and 74% respectively.

 

The Huskies are second in the MAC in rushing at 236.0 yards per game – Rockets are fourth at 207.6 - and sixth in passing offense 226.9 yards per game. Rockets are first in the MAC and ninth in the nation in passing yards per game with 345.4. Total offense – Rockets are first in the MAC and sixth in the nation.

The Huskies on Defense 

The strength of the Huskies’ defense is stopping the run. They are holding opponents to less than 200 yards rushing a game and 4.5 yards per run. The 4-2-5 alignment features both run and pass blitzes designed to attack the backfield while limiting first down big gainers.

 

NT William Lee and DT Corey Thomas, both 6’2”, 304#, clog up the middle freeing DE Ladell Fleming to lead the defensive front in total tackles and sacks. While undersized at 6’ 0”, 236#, he brings speed to defensive front four.

 

Linebackers Bobby Jones IV (6’0”, 218#) and Sean Follard (6’2”, 226#) are both fast to the ball and good tacklers. Follard leads the Huskies in total tackles with Jones second. They have combined for 8.0 TFL and a pair of sacks.

 

The five-person secondary has played well despite being hit hard by injuries and starting two freshmen. In the fourth quarter against BG, WR Aregeros Turner filled in playing safety.  The two cornerbacks, Shawun Lurry and Mayomi Ollotu, Jr., are experienced, accounting for 13 of the team’s 27 pass break ups. Lurry is the leader of the secondary having earned a dog-sled of career honors including first team All-American and All-MAC  honors at cornerback last year. He has been battered and bruised this season, missing a game with concussion symptoms earlier and battling leg cramps, hobbling around against BG.  

Huskies Special Teams 

In addition to playing both ways, Turner also returns kickoffs. With his speed, he is a threat to break off a long return at any point. He as one kickoff return for a touchdown this year and is averaging 26.7 yards per return, tops in the MAC and 16th nationally. You may want to check to see if Aregeros is part of the marching band at half time – the Huskie Band.

 

Shawun Lurry, in addition to his defensive assignments, returns punts, with a solid 7.3 yard per return average and a long of 19 yards.

 

Jake Ambrose handles the punting for NIU with a 40.3 ypp average. He is good near mid-field at pinning the opposition inside the 10-yard line.  With long field punting situations, he is somewhat inconsistent with the potential to kick a line drive, returnable punt. That said, the coverage for the Huskies on punts has been good allowing 4.4 yards per return and a long of 18 yards.

 

NIU’s kickoff coverage has been average yielding a return of 22.6 yards per kickoff return with a long of 53 yards. The Rockets are allowing an average kickoff return of 18.4 yards. Christian Hagan, kickoffs for NIU, put two of his last six kickoffs out-of-bounds, with most being returned from at or near the goal line.

 

Hagan also does the field goal and PAT kicking. He is eight of 13 on field goal attempts but has connected on six of his last seven tries. He has made all but one of his 35 PATs.

 

The Huskies may have added a bit of spice to their special team’s play against BGSU, recording their first blocks of a field goal attempt as well as an extra point kick, both on surges up the middle.

Players to Watch

  • #1 QB Anthony Maddie, how well he runs the option offensive and his ability to keep getting first downs, keeping the Rockets’ offense off the field
  • #19 CB Shawun Lurry, his play covering Toledo receivers as well as coming up in run coverage and remaining on the field
  • #90 NT William Lee and #69 DT Corey Thomas, how UT’s offensive line moves them off the line of scrimmage will be an important factor in the Rockets running backs’ success

What to Look For 

  • ·      Linebackers, #43 and particularly #33, quick off the left edge, on Woodside’s blind side, with the intent to disrupt the Rockets running game and make Logan uncomfortable
  • ·      Rockets to force Maddie to roll out to his left under pressure on his throws; he is a stronger passer in the pocket and moving to his right
  • ·      NIU to blitz line backers on both running and passing downs
  • ·      Woodside to alert count cadence to disrupt NIU timing of blitzes
  • ·      Rockets to kick away from #22
  • ·      NIU short yardage package with two tight ends, one wide receiver spread out beyond the hash to the wide side, with a single back with option run, pitch to the wide side on read option
  • ·      Few yellow flags against the Huskies with most being for holding
  • ·      The push at the LOS by both offensive lines
  • ·      #35 TE/FB Shane Wimann is typically in a blocking position, however, if running/passing game bogs down, look for clear-out dump-off pass over the middle
  • ·      #22 Turner on crossing passing routes
  • ·      #19 Golladay to run mostly out routes, fades in the red zone, with an occasional slant
  • ·      Lots of motion from the Huskie offense on most every play
  • ·      Third and 8 to 10, Maddie goes to #4 on come back, quick out at the sticks to the right side on the near side
  • ·      Rockets tall and fast receivers will be deep challenges for NIU secondary
  • ·      Close game into the fourth quarter

 

Game Weather Forecast 

Beautiful with plenty of sunshine during the day with a high of 56 degrees feeling like 59 degrees; at night a low of 40 degrees with zero chance of precipitation; winds at night out of the WSW at 9 mph with gusts to 24 mph; stadium design and field layout should shield the field from too much wind.

 

Broadcast

ESPN2 with coverage beginning at 7:00 p.m. CT / 8:00 p.m. ET


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