5 things to watch for in NIU's season opener at Georgia Tech

  • Junior transfer Rocky Lombardi, here leading Michigan State to a victory over Northwestern last season, will lead Northern Illinois Saturday at Georgia Tech.

    Junior transfer Rocky Lombardi, here leading Michigan State to a victory over Northwestern last season, will lead Northern Illinois Saturday at Georgia Tech. Associated Press

  • The Northern Illinois defense will keep a close eye on versatile Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims when the Huskies travel to meet the Yellow Jackets in the season opener Saturday night.

    The Northern Illinois defense will keep a close eye on versatile Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims when the Huskies travel to meet the Yellow Jackets in the season opener Saturday night. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/3/2021 11:34 AM

Northern Illinois opens its 2021 season Saturday at Georgia Tech in the first meeting between the schools, and the first time the Huskies have played in Georgia or against a team from Georgia.

Kickoff is 6:30 p.m. (ACC Network, WLBK AM-1360, AM-560 The Answer).

 

Here are five things to keep an eye on:

NIU QB Rocky Lombardi

The junior transfer from Clive, Iowa, played at Michigan State and started nine games over three seasons. Two of his wins in 2020 came against No. 8 Northwestern and No. 13 Michigan. He finished with 1,090 yards passing in 2020. Against Michigan he had 323 yards and three touchdowns.

Georgia Tech QB Jeff Sims

As a freshman, Sims threw for 1,881 yards in 10 games last year as Georgia Tech went 3-7. He also ran 170 times for 492 yards and six scores.

"We just have to make sure we attack the quarterback," NIU safety Devin Lafayette said. "Make sure we get to him fast, try to get him out of the game early."

Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins said Sims worked in the offseason to become a better passer. He completed 54.9% last year with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

In last year's 0-6 campaign, the Huskies had 11 sacks while giving up 14.

Seeking a Boneyard win

Anytime the Huskies visit a Power 5 school, they call it a Boneyard Game. The Huskies last won such a game in 2018 when they defeated BYU 7-6. Saturday is a whiteout game for the Yellow Jackets, with the crowd all in white.

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"We can't be wowed and awed from the whiteout or whatever else they have going on down there," NIU coach Thomas Hammock said. "This will be the first time playing in front of fans for a lot of guys. I think we need to embrace that. We need to want to be in that moment."

Hammock said the team will need to play with poise and confidence in front of the energetic crowd. In addition to his team being loaded with "COVID" freshmen -- players in their second year who played last year but did not use eligibility per NCAA rules -- most of them did not play in front of crowds of any size last year.

The team lost at Utah, Vanderbilt and Nebraska two years ago. Junior wide receiver Cole Tucker has played in all those games, plus games at Iowa and Florida State. He said the biggest thing in these games is to handle adversity.

"It might be cool at first, but it goes away within the first 5 minutes. You don't even notice they're there," Tucker said of the crowd.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The receiver chart

Tyrice Richie made 53 catches last year, and Clint Ratkovich proved himself as a target out of the backfield at Western Illinois before transferring to NIU. Add in Tucker and that's an experienced trio for Lombardi to target.

A deep running back group

Harrison Waylee led the Huskies with 491 rushing yards and 4.3 per carry in his true freshman year, while Erin Collins ran for 3.8 per carry after transferring into the program.

Things got a lot deeper with the addition of Ratkovich and true freshman Antario Brown.

"They've got three really good running backs -- two are returners, one is an elite 100-meter guy (Waylee), one is a very physical runner that has some speed (Collins)," Geoff Collins said. "Then there's the freshman ... (Brown), a really, really good player. ... They want to run the football and they're very good at it."

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