The Michigan Wolverines (2-0) have already beaten one MAC opponent this season in conference title contenders Western Michigan and will get their chance at another when they host the Northern Illinois Huskies (1-1) on Saturday afternoon.
NIU nearly pulled off an upset last week despite trailing Wyoming by double digits in the first half. It was a wave of emotions as they proceeded to score four straight touchdowns before eventually falling to the Cowboys 50-43. In spite of the loss, it's been a promising start to the year for the Huskies after toppling ACC opponent Georgia Tech in the opener and giving one of the better teams in the Mountain West all they could handle.
It will be a big ask of NIU to go into Ann Arbor and shock the Wolverines with how Michigan has looked through two weeks. Michigan put together a dominant performance on Saturday night against Washington, holding the Huskies to just 10 points while rushing for more than 343 yards. The Wolverines have several areas needing improvement, particularly in the passing game, but Jim Harbaugh’s squad looks to have turned a corner after last season’s disappointing performance.
Northern Illinois at No. 25 Michigan
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 18 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Michigan -27
When Northern Illinois Has the Ball
Quarterback Rocky Lombardi will be looking for his second consecutive victory over the Wolverines, as the Michigan State transfer had himself a day last season for the Spartans with 323 passing yards and three touchdowns in a 27-24 win. After a solid performance in Week 1 against Georgia Tech, the turnover bug reared its ugly head again for Lombardi with three costly interceptions against Wyoming. Lombardi had nine interceptions a year ago, leading to his eventual benching and transfer from Michigan State. He’ll have to be sound with the football if NIU is to pull off the upset, though Michigan has only forced one turnover in two games despite how solid that unit has been.
Lombardi throwing the football won’t be how the Huskies can pull off a victory on Saturday, though, as NIU will lean on star second-year running back Harrison Waylee who’s off to an incredible start to the year, ranking third nationally in rushing yards with 323. Despite his size (5-10, 185), Waylee has become a workhorse, averaging 26 carries a game through two weeks. The Michigan run defense has allowed just 2.75 yards per carry to start the season after holding Washington to 50 yards on 32 attempts (1.56 ypc).
When Michigan Has the Ball
There is no doubting what Michigan’s identity as an offense is — run the football and blow defenders off the line of scrimmage. That was blatantly evident against Washington when the Wolverines rushed for 343 yards on 56 carries. Conversely, Michigan attempted just 15 passes against the Huskies, a 3:1 ratio in run-pass plays. Harbaugh answered those questions this week from the media by saying “there are multiple ways to travel.”
Hard not to be enticed to keep the ball on the ground with the way the backs and offensive line are playing right now. After two games, Michigan ranks 10th in Rush Play Total PPA and seventh nationally in Line Yards created, so the offensive line is doing an exceptional job of forming holes for Blake Corum and Hassan Haskins. The Michigan duo now ranks eighth and 25th, respectively, in rushing nationally and will now take on a Huskies run defense that is allowing 232 rushing yards per game. Cade McNamara may not have to throw a pass on Saturday.
The Huskies look to have improved substantially over the offseason after finishing winless in 2020, but this will be their biggest challenge of the early season. This will be a “strength on weakness” matchup with the Michigan offensive line and running game against an overmatched defensive front seven for NIU that will need to put eight or nine men in the box to contain this ground attack. NIU might catch Michigan with a hangover in the first quarter after the prime-time victory last weekend, but the Wolverines will cruise in the second half to a comfortable win.
Prediction: Michigan 45, Northern Illinois 10
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— Written by Mike Bainbridge, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bainbridge is a graduate of Northern Illinois University. Follow him on Twitter @MBainbridgeCFF.