Michigan Wolverines Football vs. Northern Illinois

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Michigan is a win away from finishing the non-conference portion of the slate undefeated, a heavy favorite to do just that.

While some would have called this a 50-50 proposition heading into the season given where Washington was projected (top 20, several All-Pac-12 returning starters, etc.), the Huskies (last week’s version, not this week’s in Northern Illinois) proceeded to lose 13-7 to FCS Montana — at home, no less.

This week’s contest is the easiest of the three non-conference games on paper, and the Wolverines enter as a 27-point favorite after being favored by 17 against Western Michigan (a 41-17 win) and seven over Washington (31-10).

Enter an old nemesis in Rocky Lombardi, who led one of the weirder upsets in Michigan Stadium history last season while playing with Michigan State in an empty Big House.

RELATED: Previewing Michigan vs. Northern Illinois With A Huskies Insider

RELATED: Keys To The Game: Michigan vs. Northern Illinois

Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh

Michigan Wolverines football coach Jim Harbaugh hopes to improve to 2-0 with a win over Washington (Lon Horwedel)

Yes, the quarterback who made the Spartans’ decade a year ago was cast off to the MAC, and now he’s looking for an encore. This time, though, he figures to be challenged a bit more — as in, forced to do more than throw to receivers running open in man coverage.

“I didn’t even know NIU played them until I had committed,” Lombardi said. “Coach Ham [Thomas Hammock] talked to me when I did commit, said we have Michigan Week 3. I was like, ‘well, sure enough, of course.’ It was exciting we get the opportunity.”

It will be his third trip to the Big House, and he made a stunning observation.

“Well, it’s big, first of all,” he said. “It’s obviously the biggest stadium in the country. That was something that you noticed right away. You walk into it and it’s much bigger than a lot of stadiums that you play in.

“That environment is always really good there, but it’s just like most of the big-time stadiums. You compare it to Penn State and Ohio State. There are a lot of atmospheres that are similar, but it’s a good place to play.”

Especially when there’s no home-crowd environment and your opponent decides not to show up.

But that shouldn’t be the case this year. The Wolverines have a new defensive coordinator and plan, better culture and togetherness and a chance to head into the conference season unblemished.

One local news outlet (unsurprisingly) suggested it was bigger than it really is with its ‘Why Michigan is salivating for a rematch with ex-Michigan State QB Rocky Lombardi’ headline. To that we’d say …

And a win over NIU doesn’t prove anything, regardless who’s taking snaps. No, that opportunity comes later in the season, and it’s one the Wolverines had better settle.

We imagine the Wolverines won’t be as bad as they were last year … or as our Doug Skene has been at staff picks.

Congrats to all those who picked a Michigan win last week. You each get to wear one of Skene’s five Big Ten championship rings for the year. This week’s victor gets the right to write this column next week and make fun of Doug’s predictions yourself.

The Picks:

CHRIS BALAS: This game has nothing to do with who’s playing quarterback for Northern Illinois, and the Wolverines will react accordingly and take care of business. MICHIGAN 45, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 10

JOHN BORTON: So, Rocky Lombardi retains the grin he’s carried since the second week of last year’s sad little season. He’ll be distraught to know Michigan didn’t retain the defensive system that allowed him to look like a combination of Tom Brady, Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw … for a day. MICHIGAN 41, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 17

CLAYTON SAYFIE: Northern Illinois went winless last season, and while winning at Georgia Tech is impressive for a MAC school, there are still plenty of holes on this Huskies roster, namely on defense, where they haven’t been able to stop the run or pass.

“On the other side, Michigan’s defense can’t wait for another crack at quarterback Rocky Lombardi, and should be able to shut down what has been a productive rushing attack against less-than-stellar competition. MICHIGAN 52, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 6

DOUG SKENE: Michigan is off to a good start and it looks like the defense is having fun playing under their new defensive coordinator. Many of the players on this defense were on the field last year when Rocky Lombardi dropped bombs all over them, and we know the rest of the ugly details.

I look for U-M to get after Mr. Lombardi with some special juice.

The Michigan offense has found a running game early in this season, and that’s a good thing. I look for lots more of what we’ve seen so far with the ground attack. At some point, the Michigan passing attack will have to show itself. Perhaps Northern Illinois will force the issue and put all 11 defenders in the box to see what Cade McNamara can do. MICHIGAN 31, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 10

DOUG KARSCH: Offensive coordinator Josh Gattis lost his voice this week yelling so much. This is right out of the Nick Saban playbook — light up your team coming off a big win.

“But they’re still kids and a let down is inevitable. Northern Illinois will run it a bit, but Michigan will run it more. MICHIGAN 31, NORTHERN ILLINOIS 14

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