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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame Opponent Preview | Northern Illinois

June 14, 2024
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Northern Illinois is an unfamiliar opponent for Notre Dame fans, but NIU is not unfamiliar with playing teams from power conferences. They’ve faced at least two in every full season since 2017.

They are 3-11 in those matchups. Two of those wins have come in the last three seasons under head coach Thomas Hammock.

They upset Georgia Tech in 2021 and Boston College last season. Neither of those teams were good (not ranked in the top-80 in F+ rankings those seasons), but they still had a lot more raw talent on their roster than NIU and managed to lose those games.

That’s the “every game needs to be taken seriously” pitch. We know that Notre Dame has not always done that against MAC opponents with near upsets against Ball State in 2018 and Toledo in 2021. They did lose to a Conference USA opponent in Marshall in 2022.

This NIU defense won’t be close to the one Marshall had in 2022, but they are considered a favorite to win their division in the MAC. Hammock has had up and down results during his tenure with a 24-33 overall record. The highlight was 9-3 in 2021, but that was followed up by 3-9. Last season they went 7-6, only his second winning season out of five.

They’ve been a physical team under Hammock and that might not exactly be the best recipe against Marcus Freeman’s program, which has been as physical as any team in the last two seasons.

Post-Spring SP+ Ranking

NIU is 91st in the post-spring SP+ projections. They are 118th on offense, 45th on defense, and 116th on special teams.

Key losses Starting

QB Rocky Lombardi, a Michigan State transfer, is out of eligibility. They have to figure out their QB1 situation.

The two biggest losses on offense are on the O-line with C Pete Nygra transferring to Louisville after spending two years as the starter at NIU and losing OT Nolan Potter (1st team All-MAC in 2023) to graduation.

DT James Ester (2nd team All-MAC in 2023) led NIU in sacks and was second on the team in total pressures.

LB Tyler Jackson and LB Daron Gilbert both transferred in for 2023 and started at linebacker. They are out of eligibility and they also lost LB Devin Lafayette (transfer to Troy). He was a key reserve who would have been projected to start in 2024.

Edge George Gumbs (8.5 havoc plays) was thought of as a future star. He transferred to Florida after last season.

S CJ Brown was a multi-year starter, but the depth chart was pretty crowded at safety for NIU. He’s now at Bowling Green.

Key additions

QB Jalen Macon from Arkansas Pine-Bluff might end up as their starting quarterback. He’s a dual-threat who generated positive buzz this spring. He’s 6-5 230 and showed plenty of potential in the first six games before an injury knocked him out for the season.

WR Kenji Lewis also transferred from Arkansas Pine-Bluff. He led them in receiving.

WR Andrew McElroy transferred from St. Thomas (D-III) and was a pre-season All-American in 2023. He’s an intriguing addition with a couple of years of eligibility left.

LB Christian Fuhrman (Southeast Missouri State) is a potential starter for them at linebacker.

TE Jake Appleget gets listed because he is transferring from Nebraska, but he played only two snaps last season.

Top returners and returning production

They are 45th in returning production (74th on offense and 23rd on defense).

RB Antario Brown is their star on offense. He rushed for 1,296 yards and 10 TDs last season. He was third in yards before contact, which speaks to his burst and the job the offensive line did. He was 1st team All-MAC in 2023.

RB Gavin Williams (Iowa transfer) is also back. He averaged 5.14 yards per carry and was their second leading rusher. He also chipped in with 24 receptions.

Trayvon Rudolph led them in receiving and is also a threat in the run game and as a returner. He entered the portal, but chose to stay. He’s one of the more dynamic offensive players in the conference.

6-5 Grayson Barnes (18.4 per catch) is basically a move tight end who plays in the slot over 50% of the time. He’s a player Notre Dame will have to have a plan for in coverage.

TE Chris Carter is back and is another big target (6-7), but he does most of his work in-line as a blocker.

Despite those key losses on the offensive line, they still return plenty of experience. They were without 2022 starter Logan Zschernitz for most of last season, but he’s back and healthy. He was 2nd team All-MAC that season at guard and has played close to 2,500 snaps in his career.

Evan Buss (Athlon has him 2nd team All-MAC in the pre-season) was a starter at left tackle in 2022. JJ Lippe (pre-season 2nd team All-MAC) and John Champe (2nd team All-MAC by Phil Steele) are two others with over 2,000 snaps logged in their careers.

Expect those two to man the guard spots with Zschernitz moving to center.

QB Ethan Hampton is the other contender to be the starter at quarterback. He has nine touchdowns against eight interceptions in his career.

The defense is bringing back most of their core pieces from a group that finished 39th in points per drive in 2023.

Edge Raishein Thomas (8.5 havoc plays) is the best player up front. A strong player against the run, he finished with a solid 18.9% win rate versus true pass sets as well. DT Devonte O’Malley (1st team All-MAC in the pre-season) and LB Jaden Dolphin (2nd team All-MAC in the pre-season) are two other nice pieces in the front six.

Thomas and Dolphin finished first and second on the team in tackles last fall.

S Nate Valcarcel (three interceptions) and S Jordan Hansen are both back as the starting safeties. CB Javaughn Byrd (1st team All-MAC in the pre-season) and CB Amariyun Knighten allowed a QBR under 18.0 in primary coverage. Byrd tied for the team lead in interceptions and led the team with 11 total havoc plays.

Nickel Jashon Prophete (nine havoc plays) was a very good slot defender as well.

They have to figure out some things at linebacker, but they were able to hang on to a lot of important pieces on defense.

One big question

Can they score enough to keep it close?

I bet a lot of people see the fact that Northern Illinois has so much experience coming back on the offensive line and in the secondary and that worries them because this is a team that won’t likely beat themselves.

They beat BC in a close game last season, lost by one score to Kentucky in 2022, and beat Georgia Tech in 2021. NIU will at least come in with a belief that it is possible for them to win.

However, an offense projected at 118th in SP+ against a Notre Dame defense that should be top-five in the country shouldn’t instill confidence. NIU has major questions at quarterback and receiver and if they can’t run the ball well, they’ll have no chance of keeping the score anywhere close to where they might be able to pull out a win.

NIU dominated time of possession against BC in their overtime win. BC’s defense havoc rate in that game was 14.3% and they were 132nd in the country in havoc rate in 2023. Notre Dame was 15th and if they get NIU behind the sticks, it’s going to be a rough day on offense for NIU.

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