For the first time in over a year, Northern Illinois will play a non-conference opponent as they open the 2021 season against Georgia Tech. Another first for the Huskies this Saturday will be a full-capacity crowd on hand participating in a “white out.” The Huskies roster, primarily consisting of underclassmen, features many players who have not played in a game of this magnitude or in front of that many people.
The 2021 Huskies take on somewhat of a different makeup with the addition of Rocky Lombardi at quarterback in addition to Clint Ratkovich at running back. Although head coach Thomas Hammock did not release a depth chart ahead of Week 1, he did speak about Ratkovich’s ability to do a variety of different things for the Huskies’ offense. As for Lombardi, Coach Hammock has praised the quarterback for his leadership and play on the field.
Broadcast: ACC Network, 6:30 PM Central
Odds: NIU +19; O/U 57
Location: Bobby Dodd Stadium, Atlanta Georgia
Georgia Tech Key Players
Jeff Sims – Quarterback (10)
Sims is a dynamic player who can hurt defenses with both his legs and his arm. He averaged 12 carries per game last season for a 4.1 yard average with six touchdowns. Sims finished the season with a 55% completion percentage and 13 touchdowns, but he also threw 13 picks and as seen on film can be beaten.
Leading up to this matchup, NIU defensive players James Ester and Devin Lafayette stressed the importance of making Sims beat the Huskies with his arm. The NIU defense intends to throw everything they have at the rushing attack of the Yellow Jackets, of which Sims is essentially the “point guard.” He will take RPO Carries, tuck it and run when targets aren’t open, and do everything in between. While Sims does have a tremendous upside, he did account for 13 interceptions last season, so look for the NIU defense to take some chances to get turnovers off Sims.
Jahmyr Gibbs – Running Back (21)
There is no way around it, Gibbs is a flat-out playmaker. Whether he’s getting a carry out of the backfield, catching a pass, or returning a kick, he could cause problems for the Huskies. Gibbs gets to the second and third levels of opposing defenses and sometimes looks to hit what appears to be a fourth gear, which is truly mind-blowing stuff. The NIU defense needs to keep Gibbs in front of them at all costs, as he could be the fastest player on the field at any given time on Saturday. He finished the 2020 season with 763 yards from scrimmage with a 6.8 yard per touch average and seven touchdowns. Needless to say, the Huskies will have their hands full when dealing with Gibbs.
Malachi Carter – Wide Receiver (15)
The highest producing returning receiver for the Yellow Jackets is Malachi Carter. He finished last season with 20 catches for 290 yards and three touchdowns. While those are relatively decent numbers considering he was never the No. 1 target for Georgia Tech, Carter lacks the top-end speed to truly give the NIU secondary headaches. Similar to defending Gibbs, if the Huskies can keep Carter in front of them there should be zero issues containing him and holding him to a less than stellar performance. One of the underrated parts of Carter’s game is his ability to break routes off on broken plays and get open for his quarterback, so NIU’s secondary will need to play until the whistle with Sims under center as he can extend plays that seem dead.
NIU Key’s To Victory
Points Early and Often: Georgia Tech’s defense allowed nearly 200 yards on the ground and in the air per game last season, so this is a unit that can be attacked. When NIU moves the ball, they need to have the ability to finish their drives. In order to win this game, the Huskies will want to have between 14-24 points at the half. Ideally, they don’t want to get into a shootout with the Yellow Jackets, but it could be one of the only ways to beat them.
Pressure in the Backfield: With both Sims and Gibbs being such dynamic playmakers, it’s important for NIU to keep contain, send extra pressure via blitzes, and make sure that both players are kept at bay. NIU has quality depth up front and athletic enough linebackers to be able to send consistent pressure. How they hold up on the back end will be more of a burning question for the Huskies defense. With no true depth chart announced, we can only speculate who will start at free safety and cornerback No. 2.
Be Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable: A majority of players on NIU’s roster have not played in an atmosphere of this magnitude, as limited capacity crowds last season prevented the Huskies’ freshmen from playing in a hostile environment like this. On the other end of the spectrum, there are also more than enough veteran players who rise to the occasion in these games. NIU needs to have that “trust the man next to you” mentality each and every play. There will most likely be adversity, some calls may not be clear, and it’s going to be loud and hot in Atlanta. The quicker adjustments are made, the quicker this team can succeed.
In Rocky We Trust: We haven’t seen an NIU quarterback with as much hype as Rocky Lombardi has surrounding him in a very long time. Lombardi looks to fit the mold, he checks all the boxes, and he has the ability to lead this NIU offense to great things. He hasn’t had an opportunity in a live game scenario to do that as a Huskie, so I would like to see him take chances, run the ball, and just let it ride. If he makes a mistake make, it should be at 110%. He has the ability to take this NIU offense to the next level, but it won’t get there with check-downs and screen passes.
GA Tech: 31