Michigan Wolverines Football: Michigan Football 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 12, Northern Illinois

Here is part one of a 12-part series in which we count down Michigan Wolverines football’s 2021 strength of schedule from the easiest game (12) to the most difficult contest (1). Checking in at No. 12 is the third game of the season on Sept. 18 against Northern Illinois at The Big House.

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Northern Illinois Huskies football running back Tyrice Richie averaged 11.4 yards per catch last season. (AP Images)

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Head Coach: Thomas Hammock (3rd season): 5-13 (.385)

Recruiting Rankings

2017 — Not ranked in top 99

2018 — 86th

2019 — 99th

2020 — 88th

2021 — 88th

2020 Record: 0-6

Hammock had a rough go in his second year back at his alma mater, as he tries to build the Huskies back up to a contender in the MAC.

The Huskies lost to Buffalo, Central Michigan, Ball State, Western Michigan, Toledo and Eastern Michigan by a combined score of 232-149. The Huskies’ defense gave up 38.7 points per game, which was one of the worst marks (119th out of 127) in college football. The team’s offense ranked 90th in the country by scoring 24.8 points per game.

Did You Know?

• Michigan is 1-0 all time against Northern Illinois, with the Wolverines having beaten the Huskies, 33-17, to open the 2005 season.

• The Maize and Blue are 24-1 in program history against Mid-American Conference opponents.

• Before returning to Northern Illinois, Hammock was the running backs coach for John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens from 2014-18. During his time there, he worked with new Michigan defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and new U-M quarterbacks coach Matt Weiss, who took over for Hammock as the Ravens’ running backs coach once he departed.

2021 Preview

Northern Illinois has a quarterback battle that will rage on in the summer and into fall camp. Redshirt junior signal-caller Rodney Thompson is the only quarterback with playing experience at NIU, but he appeared in just two games last season and threw two passes. The odds-on favorite to win the job is Rocky Lombardi, a name Michigan fans are familiar with. The redshirt sophomore played at Michigan State for three seasons, starting nine games, including in a win over Michigan at The Big House in 2020. He passed for 1,090 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions, completing 53.5 percent of his passes last year.

Whoever ends up being the quarterback has a reliable target to throw to in fifth-year senior wideout Tyrice Richie, a first-team All-MAC standout last season. He led the club in receiving last season with 53 catches for 597 yards and four touchdowns.

Freshman running back Harrison Waylee led the Huskies in rushing last season, churning out 456 yards on 107 carries for one touchdown, while junior back Erin Collins found pay dirt four times and gained 192 yards on 50 attempts.

All in all, NIU returns 53 percent of its production offensively, and much of that is along the offensive line, where the Huskies return all five starters.

On defense, there is much more — 87 percent of returning production — stability, and the strength, despite yielding 245.3 yards per game through the air last season, should be on the back end.

Sophomore cornerback Jordan Gandy, a second-team All-MAC pick, was arguably the team’s best defender in 2020. He led the team in tackles with 41, broke up a team-leading seven passes and notched one interception. Meanwhile, freshman safety Jordan Hansen picked off two balls last season and graded out as the team’s top coverage man in the secondary, according to PFF, with a 67.6 mark. Fellow safety Devin Lafayette was a third-team All-MAC choice last season, posting one interception and 36 tackles.

Fifth-year senior inside linebacker Kyle Pugh, a third-team All-MAC selection last season, should anchor the front seven. He was tied with Lafayette for second on the team in tackles with 36 last season, including a team-leading 3.5 stops for loss.

Why No. 12 In The Countdown?

Michigan will be playing its third-straight home game to open the season when it takes on the Huskies Sept. 18. While there’s a chance of a letdown coming off either a big win or a disappointing loss against Washington the week prior, the Wolverines should be a better bunch than they would have been in the opener against Western Michigan as they break in a new defense.

NIU is searching for its first victory in two seasons, having just come off an abysmal winless campaign in 2020. If all goes according to plan, Michigan will use this game as a final tune up before beginning Big Ten play the following week against Rutgers.

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