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Getting to know Northern Illinois with sideline reporter Andy Garcia

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Northern Illinois has been competitive this year, and their QB beat Michigan a season ago.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Georgia Tech Jenn Finch-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan Football is now ranked at No. 25 in the nation after convincing wins to start the season over Western Michigan and Washington. Their Week 3 opponent, Northern Illinois, beat Georgia Tech in an upset Week 1, and lost by a touchdown in a high scoring affair to Wyoming a week ago.

Northern Illinois has a familiar face at quarterback, Rocky Lombardi, who beat Michigan a season ago as Michigan State’s starting quarterback. Northern Illinois is a team that nobody will be picking to win this one, but they’re a team that has battled early in the season, and has a QB who already knows what it’s like facing Michigan.

To dive deeper into what to expect from the Huskies on Saturday, we spoke with Northern Illinois sideline reporter Andy Garcia. The conversation is available below in both podcast and transcript form.

How is Northern Illinois trending this year? What have you seen? What have you liked?

I think like you said, what Jim Harbaugh said, that this team is on the up and up is true. You know, they had six games last year, only got six with COVID. But a lot of players got into those games that were really young, like even this year, Trevor, you look at the roster. They’re eighty seven, and I put my air quotes up, freshmen. 44 of those are true incoming freshmen. But 34 of those were COVID freshmen, they got into the games last year. And then they have 10 redshirt freshmen. So it’s a team that’s young, but a team that’s had some experience it got in some of those games last year. And that’s what helped get into what week one was with the win against Georgia Tech. NIU got the early lead against the Yellow Jackets, Georgia Tech came back to get the lead in the fourth and then NIU came back but a nice scoring drive and finish it off with the two point conversion to get the win.

I feel like NIU feels like they’re playing well. They lost at home to Wyoming last week, but they had the nice comeback. They were down by 26, able to take the lead, not able to get the win. They’re an up and up team. They’ve got a lot of weapons. They’re young, but that some young experience that they got last year in the 2020 season.

One player that does have experience and some ups and downs to his career, but a guy who beat Michigan nonetheless in a pandemic season in 2020 — former Michigan State starter rocky Lombardi, who’s now with Northern Illinois. Lombardi threw for 323 yards and three touchdowns in the win for Michigan State over Michigan. Lombardi put on an aerial assault, and had one of the better games of his career. Definitely a guy who is mobile, likes to stretch the field with his arm. However, as you’ve already seen this year, he does throw some interceptions. Just curious your scouting report of Lombardi and what you’ve seen to this point.

He’s brought in some some leadership. He’s a captain on the squad, it didn’t take long to show his leadership on the team. You mentioned his mobility, that brings something that this NIU offense wants to run, they want that dual threat type of quarterback that go with their running game. Yes, he has some interceptions early here, but two of them were tipped last week. Two of those were tip balls against Wyoming — one really costly one was in the other red zone is and it was trying to score. For NIU, he brings in some leadership. He can throw a pinpoint ball though, he’s really good with receivers there again. You know, he’s been able to have that relationship with the receivers, but it’s with what NIU is trying to do.

They want their quarterback to go make plays, but most importantly, you can’t turn the ball over. In the first two games, you can’t turn the ball over. He’s brought an upper class, a little bit that, that’s played in big games, and it’s helped this offense kind of just be stable and know you’ve got a quarterback that you can count on.

And who are some of the weapons that Lombardi has at his disposal? Jim Harbaugh mentioned the running back situation at an IU as a strong one. Can you talk about that, and just the receiving corps in general?

The running back room is packed and by all means, it’s a really good running back Led by Harrison Waylee. He’s third in the nation through two games with rushing yards per game — almost 162 rushing yards a game, and those are a legit two games he played against, he played against Georgia Tech and Wyoming. And he has explosive speed, he can get to the outside and he’s got that speed to take it to the house no matter where on the field. He’s got that type of speed that if he breaks a couple tackles, if he gets through the hole he’s going and that’s going to help NIU.

The receivers — Tyrice Richie, senior wide receiver, big time receiver, makes the big catches. He made the big two point catch, trying to twist back to make the catch in the endzone against Georgia Tech with a two point conversion to get NIU the win. Michigan fans gonna have to see where he is on the field because Lombardi is going to look for Richie, number three. You also have Cole Tucker number 15, a third down receiver. If it comes down to third down and whatever for NIU, Lombardi is going to be looking for Tucker. He finds holes in zones, he finds himself being able to get open when the Huskies need a catch.

Trayvon Rudolph, kickoff returner, punt returner, but also a wide receiver that also had a nice forty-yard touchdown catch last week against Wyoming. He’s got speed, he’s got agility. NIU’s got some weapons, they come into this game with guys that got some speed. They can take it to the house and know how to get open. So I think that’s what helps NIU in this game? It’s something NIU didn’t have as much last year in those six games. They’ve developed that. And I feel like right now NIU’s got some weapons that can hurt Michigan, that Michigan’s got to keep their eye on.

Michigan offensively, they’ve ran the ball in abundance through the first two weeks of the season. I believe only Army and Navy have rushed the ball more. My question to you is how has NIU done so far stopping the run? And is this a potential area of concern for the Huskies?

It’s the advantage that Michigan will have on Saturday, NIU’s defense has had problems in the first two games stopping the run. Running backs have been able to break tackles or get to the outside. And that’s something that NIU head coach Thomas Hammock has mentioned this week at some of the press conferences. They’ve got a gang tackle, they got to wrap up. You can’t give Michigan yards after first contact, you’ve got to be able to take them down. Because opponents have gone off against NIU’s defense and tried to run the ball and they’ve had success. So it’s the number one key for me this week is — first things first, you’ve got to try to slow down that Michigan run game. Because then you’ve got to make Michigan throw the ball with McNamara. You’ve got to get it in his hands. Because if Michigan’s able to do what they’ve done in the first two games it’ll be a long day for an NIU.

And how about the pass defense? Last week, obviously 50 points were given up. How much was that because they couldn’t stop the run? How much that was because Wyoming’s passing attack had some progress?

I think Wyoming was able to find some holes in the defense and NIU did lose one of their main safeties in Devin Lafayette in the first game against Georgia Tech. He’s out with a leg injury for the rest of the season. NIU’s kind of had to show their depth out there in the secondary I think the first couple of games both Georgia Tech and Wyoming have just found some holes in the NIU defense. I don’t think it’s been tackling or anything like that. It’s just that Huskies have given them a little bit of space. And the opponents have been able to make some catches, so it’s something NIU’s talked about where you got to stay on the receivers. Hopefully the pass rush will help that for NIU. That’s one thing that NIU’s got to step up in this game against Michigan.

NIU’s gotta get somewhat of a pass rush to not get McNamara enough time to find any weapon he wants. That’ll help the secondary, but if you give any off, that’s enough time they’re gonna find some open receivers. I think that’s what has happened to NIU’s defense so far.

How is Northern Illinois treating the matchup versus Michigan?

I think NIU sees this as an opportunity. I think they see it as an opportunity to be on Big Ten Network and to show off maybe a little bit of the MAC, because like you said, they’ve gone to a bit of a hostile environment going down to Atlanta, Georgia Tech, it was loud down there. And when Georgia Tech made the comeback, it was loud. And NIU showed some toughness coming back to get that win. Is it anything like 110,000 in Michigan stadium? Absolutely not. And you’re always going to be enamored with that for the first couple of minutes. But I think that kind of goes away once you get hit in the mouth, right? You’re enamored with the big stadium until Michigan hits you or NIU hits you, and then it’s just another game.

I think NIU needs to keep it close from the beginning. Huskies have to start out fast. They have to come out and have a good start. You can’t let Michigan get that running game going. The Huskies on offense have to makes some plays, hopefully Harrison Waylee can get going early and have some yards. Hopefully now you can get a couple scores.

In Big Ten country they’ve had some wins against Purdue, Northwestern, Iowa. So NIU’s had wins against the Big Ten so I don’t think it’s anything about that. But anytime you have a chance to take on a ranked team now that Michigan’s ranked 25th, I think that’s also a big for NIU. The Huskies know this is a big challenge. Michigan’s playing well, they’ve had two good games to start out. NIU knows they have to have a good start to try to make this a four quarter game on the road. But I think getting that one in Georgia Tech was kind of big to go and do that already this year. Again, different type of animal in Michigan, at least have some type of experience to grow on. You can least look back a little bit if something starts to go wrong up up in Ann Arbor on Saturday.

A couple weeks into the season, how Northern Illinois has battled in wins and losses to this point, makes this matchup all the more interesting. Heading into the year this is one I circled as game that’s going to be a blowout. And it still could be, but Northern Illinois, just the way they played, Jim Harbaugh’s comments — sometimes it’s coach speak, right? Coaches always do that. But I think some respect needs to be given to Northern Illinois. And that’s what we’re seeing now.

I think coach Hammock having close family relationships with both Jim Harbaugh and John Harbaugh, coach Hammock coached with John Harbaugh in Baltimore for a couple years as the running backs coach. Coach Hammock feels like they know a little bit of what Michigan may run. Now there’s whole different coordinators than in the past with Michigan now, but I think coach Hammock know a little bit of the family, a little bit the relationship. It makes it for another nice storyline going into Saturday.