No. 54: Northern Illinois
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 16, 2012
Last year’s team was not quite as good as the 2010 version, the last piloted by Jerry Kill, but it matched that team in the one place it counts: 11 wins. In doing so, Northern Illinois joined a select upper slice of programs to have won at least 11 games in each of the last two years – joining Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Michigan State, T.C.U., Boise State, Oregon, Stanford, L.S.U. and Alabama. And of those 11, the Huskies are one of two to have achieved this feat with two different coaches, joining the Cardinal. N.I.U. is also one of only two teams to have won 11 games in each of the last two years while notching an A.P.R. score of higher than 980, joining Boise State. You can tweak statistics to suit your purpose, but no matter how you cut it, one thing is clear: the Huskies’ play over the last two years placed this program in some very elite company.
11 (3 offense, 8 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
vs. Iowa (in Chicago)
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
at Ball St.
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 20
- Oct. 27
at Western Mich.
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 14
- Nov. 23
at Eastern Mich.
Last year’s prediction
Where does Northern Illinois go from here? How do you follow up the finest season in school history without the leading figure behind the climb, not to mention without nine of last year’s starters on defense? You really don’t; these Huskies aren’t winning another 11 games, aren’t going undefeated in MAC play and aren’t even repeating as the West division champs, in my mind. There are two more significant reasons why I expect N.I.U. to take a step back: one is the coaching change, the other the losses to graduation. To be more specific about the latter, it’s about the losses on defense. For now, these Huskies are definite MAC contenders, definitely a bowl team, but not quite the class of the conference, as they were in 2010.
In a nutshell No, this team was not as solid as Kill’s final squad, most notably on the defensive side of the ball. But the decline on defense was to be expected: Northern Illinois lost a tremendous amount of talent and experience following the 2010 season, and not even hiring a defensive-first coach like Doeren was going to help the Huskies put together another dominating performance during MAC play. What Northern Illinois did, to be blunt, was survive. It survived a scare against Buffalo, pulling out a one-point win. It played flag football at Toledo, notching a 63-60 win and securing the MAC West crown. It survived late-season challenges from Ball State and Eastern Michigan, winning the pair by a combined nine points. And after digging themselves into a major hole against Ohio, the Huskies stormed back to net the MAC title at Ford Field. This team, so strong offensively, simply survived on defense. There’s something to be said for that.
High point The 23-20 win over Ohio. Down 20-0 at halftime and by 20-7 midway through the fourth quarter, N.I.U. slowly but surely crept back into the game, winning on a last-second field goal. In getting the win – the program’s first MAC title since 1983 – the Huskies gained a measure of recompense following a heartbreaking championship game loss to Miami (Ohio) the year before. The second-best win came against Toledo; that was a game that encapsulated the MAC at large, it’s safe to say.
Low point N.I.U. was going to lose to Wisconsin, so that’s not a disappointment. However, the Huskies should not have lost to Kansas in September nor to Central Michigan in the MAC opener. In both cases, the defense simply failed to show up.
Tidbit January’s bowl win over Arkansas State gave Northern Illinois’ senior class – enrolled in 2008, played through 2011 – 35 career victories, the most of any class in program history. Heading into the game, this group was tied with three other classes with 34 wins: the 2005 class, 1966 class and 1965 class. In terms of pure winning percentage, it’ll be hard for any future crop of N.I.U. seniors to beat the 1966 class, which went 34-5 – taking games at an 87.2 percent clip. In comparison, the 2011 senior class posted a winning percentage of 64.8 percent.
Tidbit (1,000-yard edition) N.I.U. has had a 1,000-yard rusher in 12 of the last 13 seasons. The streak, which began with Williams Andrews in 1999, ran unabated until 2008, when the leading rusher on Kill’s first team gained only 539 yards. Last year’s team was different in one way: for the first time, the Huskies’ leading rusher – and its lone 1,000-yard rusher – was a quarterback, not a running back.
Tidbit (six wins edition) This program has also notched at least six wins in 11 of the last 12 seasons. The lone outlier came in 2007, when the Huskies slid to two wins in Joe Novak’s final season. In comparison, the following programs have suffered at least two sub-six-win seasons since 1999, when Northern Illinois’ current run began: Alabama (2000 and 2003), Arkansas (2004-5 and 2008), B.Y.U. (2002-4), Michigan (2008-9), Nebraska (2004 and 2007), Notre Dame (1999, 2001, 2003 and 2007), Penn State (2000-1 and 2003-4) and Tennessee (2005, 2008 and 2011).
Former players in the N.F.L.
12 RB Cameron Bell (San Francisco), WR Britt Davis (New England), LB Larry English (San Diego), OT Doug Free (Dallas), QB Chandler Harnish (Indianapolis), WR Nathan Palmer (San Francisco), LB Pat Schiller (Atlanta), CB Chris Smith (St. Louis), RB Chad Spann (Pittsburgh), RB Michael Turner (Atlanta), OG Scott Wedige (Arizona), CB Tracy Wilson (New York Jets).
Arbitrary top five list
Mr. Irrelevant as a collegian (F.B.S. only), 1995-2012
1. QB Chandler Harnish, Northern Illinois.
2. QB Ronnie McAda, Army.
3. CB Mike Reed, Boston College.
4. K Ryan Succop, South Carolina.
5. LB David Vobora, Idaho.
Dave Doeren (Drake ’94), 11-3 after his first season. After posting the finest debut season by a coach in program history, Doeren seems to have Northern Illinois continuing its upwards path to the top spot in the MAC. Doeren arrived in DeKalb as a 16-year coaching veteran, with his last nine seasons as an assistant taking place on the F.B.S. ranks. He made his reputation at Wisconsin, where he spent five years, from 2006-10: first as co-defensive coordinator along with Mike Hankwitz before taking on those duties himself in 2008. How good were the Badgers over Doeren’s last three years with the program? Not an immediate hit, Doeren ingratiated himself to the Wisconsin faithful by lifting his defense out of the doldrums and into the nation’s elite; in 2010, U.W. ranked 20th in total defense, 26th against the pass, 6th in rushing scores allowed and 25th in scoring, providing balance to a team that made headlines on offense. Prior to heading to Madison, Doeren spent four years at Kansas (2002-5), beginning as the linebackers coach before again sharing the coordinator duties in his final season. There was also two seasons spent coaching the secondary at Montana (2000-1), during which time the Grizzlies went 28-3, taking home the 2000 F.C.S. national title. That provided Doeren’s first taste of a permanent position job; he had been a graduate assistant at U.S.C. before being hired by Joe Glenn. So was a fairly rapid rise for Doeren, only 40 and with nine years of F.B.S. assistant experience and one season as a head coach under his belt. In that sense, he stands as Kill’s antithesis: Kill wasn’t the Big Ten assistant MAC programs covet, but rather a longtime head coach with great success on college football’s lower levels. Doeren was an intriguing hire, thanks to his youth, energy and promise. After one season, he’s fulfilled that promise – and then some, you could say.
Tidbit (coaching edition) Losing offensive coordinator Matt Canada to Wisconsin and linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz to Toledo led N.I.U. to not only add a pair of new coaches to the staff but also shake up coaching duties for a trio of retuning assistants. The Huskies’ new offensive coordinator is Mike Dunbar, a 35-year coaching veteran whose coordinator experience includes stops at Toledo, Northwestern – his most impressive stint – California, Minnesota and New Mexico State. Dunbar’s offense will be tailored to fit the program’s tastes, but his version of the spread is very similar to the one adopted by former Northwestern head coach Randy Walker. The Huskies also added former Akron wide receivers coach Frisman Jackson to the same position. Two returning assistants switched jobs: Kevin Kane moves over to linebackers, replacing Matukewicz, after serving as the tight end and fullback coach, and Bob Cole moves from receivers to quarterbacks. Graduate assistant Joe Tripodi will now work with the tight ends and fullbacks.
Players to watch
Chandler Harnish left with the following school records: passing yards, completions, attempts, efficiency, touchdowns and total offense. He leaves some big shoes to fill, to put it lightly. The mantle will fall to junior Jordan Lynch, last year’s backup, to keep this offense in stride with Toledo, Western Michigan and Ohio, the three remaining MAC teams with a realistic shot at taking home the conference championship. Athletically, there’s no reason why Lynch can’t continue to give the Huskies a major spark from the quarterback position; the big issue is experience, or lack thereof, and it’s due to his lack of prototypical playing time that Lynch is a bit of a question mark heading into September.
But he’ll get better with every passing Saturday – especially as a passer. It’s in this area that Lynch is an unknown, even if he did hit on 15 of 20 attempts for 166 yards in a secondary role last fall. But most of that action came in garbage time, outside of one huge series against Arkansas State during bowl play. If Lynch can duplicate that one series, when he led the Huskies to the go-ahead score in the second quarter, he’s going to be one of the best quarterbacks in a quarterback-driven MAC: he completed all three of his attempts for 59 yards and scored on a three-yard touchdown run.
It won’t come that easy. But while he develops his skill as a passer, Lynch will be able to replicate the production Harnish brought to the table in the running game – in this area, as a runner, Lynch is a dynamic weapon. He gained 246 yards last fall, used in certain packages, and broke Western Michigan’s back with a 113-yard performance in October. Like Harnish, he’s a big, strong, agile runner who can not only make plays between the tackles, running a quarterback draw, but might also be more dangerous in open space. There will be some sour moments early, but Lynch is going to play at an all-MAC level. And yes, he’s only going to improve with each passing week.
Lynch’s transition into a starting role will be aided by a deep and productive receiver corps. This group is headlined by seniors Martel Moore (47 receptions for 747 yards and 7 scores) and Perez Ashford (47 for 530), two of the team’s top three receivers a year ago. Moore heads into the fall riding high: he made 8 grabs for 224 yards in bowl win over the Red Wolves. With this pair in place – and both ready to carry the water in the passing game – all N.I.U. really needs to round out a solid grouping is two or three younger receivers to step into more pronounced roles.
Sophomore De’Ron Brown (24 for 322) can be a steady option, though he needs to avoid the bouts with inconsistency that plagued his debut season. The potential breakout star in the passing game is sophomore Tommylee Lewis, a special teams standout as a freshman who might have been the most impressive skill player during spring ball. If Lewis can make plays inside, this offense might have the potential for even greater fireworks on passing downs – though again, much depends on how quickly Lynch can get comfortable in the pocket. This is your top quartet, though N.I.U. also has a pair of tall, lanky, intriguing redshirt freshmen in Juwan Brescacin and Angelo Sebastiano.
Who will be the next running back to crack the 1,000-yard mark? Well, if I had to guess, I’d say that Lynch will be the next to keep this streak alive. However, the Huskies will get plenty of production out of the backfield pairing of junior Akeem Daniels (296 yards, 5.8 yards per carry) and senior Jamal Womble. While neither strikes me as an every-down back, the pair compliments each other well: Daniels is built more in the mold of the Huskies’ recent backs – smaller, quicker – while Womble, who started his career at North Carolina, is a big, powerful runner who will compliment Daniels and Lynch wonderfully. Behind this duo are junior Leighton Settle and sophomore Cameron Stingily and Giorgio Bowers.
It’s possible to make the case that Doeren’s second team will be a mirror image of his first. Heading into last season, it was clear that N.I.U. had every weapon to excel on offense; at the same time, the defense, which was breaking in seven or eight new starters, was a significant question mark. One year later, the Huskies are facing questions about their offensive production while the defense loses only three starters off of last year’s group. Is it possible that N.I.U. will shift focus, winning games with its defense while the offense struggles to recapture its 2010 and 2011 form?
Not quite. For starters, this offense isn’t really going anywhere; yes, N.I.U. is going to take a step back, but don’t doubt this team’s ability to again lead the MAC in total, rushing and scoring offense. But this defense has the experience needed to take a significant step up in production after a disappointing turn last fall, so there’s reason to believe that this group can help offset any decline from the offense. In addition, this will be the Huskies’ second season under Doeren and defensive coordinators Jay Niemann and Ryan Nielsen – another reason to expect a better performance out of the defense.
Even at linebacker, where N.I.U. lost a pair of starters, this defense has a plan in place to improve upon last season’s disappointing performance. The plan is simple: replace last year’s starters with the starters they replaced, the two past starters who missed last season due to injury and a team suspension, respectively. In 2010, junior Devon Butler and senior Tyrone Clark paced one of the program’s best efforts in recent memory; Butler, who missed last season recovering from an off-field injury, and Clark, who was suspended for a violation of team rules, will simply slide back into their starting positions without missing a beat.
And there’s every reason to think that Butler and Clark will provide N.I.U. with superior linebacker play. Both were heavy all-MAC favorites heading into last spring – Butler was a third-team all-conference pick in 2010, when he finished second on the team with 80 tackles. He’ll return to the middle, flanked on the weak side by Clark, who was one of the MAC’s best linebackers in 2010. On the strong side, N.I.U. can go with one of two sophomores, Jamaal Bass (62 tackles, 5.5 for loss) or Michael Santacaterrina (28 tackles). You cannot overestimate what returning Clark and Butler means to this defense.
The line returns nearly intact, losing one starter in tackle Ron Newcombe and a pair of reserves in end Kyle Jenkins and in would-be sophomore tackle Frank Boenzi – the latter recently dismissed from the program. These losses won’t prevent the line from being one of the best in the MAC. With senior Nabal Jefferson (46 tackles, 5.5 sacks) and junior Anthony Wells (16 tackles) back in the fold inside, N.I.U. can add JUCO transfer Ken Bishop into the mix to get a very strong three-tackle rotation; in fact, don’t be surprised if Bishop pushes Wells into a backup role. Additional depth comes from junior Zach Anderson, who saw his 2011 season cut short due to injury, and former Nebraska-Omaha transfer Donovan Gordon, a sophomore.
N.I.U. is locked in at end. On one side stands senior Sean Progar (52 tackles, 11.0 for loss, 5.5 sacks); on the other, senior Alan Baxter (48 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks). This is the best end pairing in the MAC: Progar gets the headlines – and rightfully so, as a contender for conference defensive player of the year – but Baxter is nothing if not steady, and an all-conference contender in his own right. N.I.U. also returns its top three reserve ends in sophomore Jason Meehan (26 tackles), a rare true freshman to make an impact for this program, and juniors Joe Windsor and Stephen O’Neal. From top to bottom, the front seven is poised to bring this defense back to its 2010 level.
And the front seven isn’t even the best portion of this defense – that’s the secondary. N.I.U. returns all four primary starters from last season, losing only would-be senior strong safety Tommy Davis, who transferred to Illinois after losing his grasp on the starting role midway through last season. What separates this group from the Huskies’ recent past at cornerback and safety isn’t merely talent, though it’s safe to say that the overall speed and athleticism in the secondary is superb – especially at safety. What makes this defensive backfield so promising, however, is the amount of quality depth N.I.U. brings to the table.
The starting four is set in stone: senior Rashaan Melvin (78 tackles, 3 interceptions and junior Jhony Faustin (70 tackles, 2 interceptions) at cornerback, sophomore Dechane Durante (57 tackles, 3 interceptions) at strong safety and junior Jimmie Ward (100 tackles) at free safety. This is the same group that started the second half of last season, when N.I.U. went from housing one of the MAC’s worst pass defenses to forcing both Ohio’s Tyler Tettleton and Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin into ugly, error-filled performances.
With the way this quartet closed last season – and due to the fact that each is an underclassman – it’s only natural to expect a more complete season in 2012. Depth in the secondary comes from senior Demetrius Stone, juniors Dominique Ware, Sean Evans and Nate McNeal, sophomore Mackie Hayes and redshirt freshman Tre’ Moore.
This defense has the potential to be outstanding. The front seven is improved: with seniors at end, size inside and the two former starters back at linebacker, this group will be able to stand up against every offense on the schedule. And after making steady progress down the stretch last fall, there’s reason to think that the secondary is the MAC’s best. As a whole, the defense is ready to pick up the slack.
Position battle(s) to watch
Offensive line Leading the way for Harnish, Hopkins and this running game was one of the nation’s best offensive lines: N.I.U. averaged 234.1 yards per game and allowed only 12.0 sacks all season, pummeling opponents inside and out of MAC play with one of the most physical and bruising quintets in college football. All good things must come to an end, unfortunately. The Huskies must replace four senior starters off of last year’s line, including two, center Scott Wedige and left tackle Trevor Olson, who earned first-team all-MAC honors. The lone holdover, senior left guard Logan Pegram, becomes the undisputed leader of this new-look front after serving in the background, behind those seniors, a season ago.
The line will be in much better shape if junior Jared Volk and sophomore Tyler Loos are at 100 percent. Loos was on pace to start last fall, in fact, ahead of Keith Otis, but suffered a season-ending injury during fall camp. If both are healthy, you can put Volk at center and Loos at right tackle – and that immediately solidifies this offensive line. Though it remains to be seen if both can return to prior form, a line that has Pegram at left guard, Volk at center, senior Matt Battaglia at right guard and Loos at right tackle has the talent and experience necessary to keep this offense humming alongside the MAC’s best. The Huskies also have a pair of long-armed underclassmen to try out at left tackle in sophomore Ryan Brown and junior Matt Krempel, though that’s a competition that won’t be resolved until fall camp.
The Huskies also bring in a few massive true freshmen, but don’t look for any rookie to play in 2012; it won’t be a good sign if N.I.U. is forced to throw a freshman into the mix. While the line is going to take a step back, it would be foolish to expect this group to fall flat come September. Each of the five projected starters has spent at least two years in this system, so they know what to expect; in addition, players like Pegram, Loos and Volk have earned enough playing time to move seamlessly into all-MAC contention. A weaker line, but not a weak line – a question mark, but not a potentially crippling concern.
Game(s) to watch
The Huskies trade Wisconsin for Iowa and get Kansas at home – even if Kansas will be better – so the non-conference slate isn’t as tough as it was a year ago. In addition, not only does N.I.U. get Toledo at home but also with an extended time to prepare; as was the case in 2011, the Huskies will have more than a week to get ready for the Rockets. All in all, this schedule should contain at least two multiple-game winning streaks. You could even make the case that there isn’t a single game N.I.U. shouldn’t win from Iowa through Western Michigan – a period of seven games.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell If no longer the class of the MAC, Northern Illinois remains the best team in the West division. However, it’s obvious that the Huskies aren’t going to maintain the program’s current streak of 11-win seasons. There are roster and personnel issues to address on the offensive side of the ball: Lynch at quarterback, the combination of Daniels and Womble at running back and, most of all, this new-look offensive line. Each are worrisome in their way, but it’s easy to see N.I.U. rectifying these issues by the time the calendar turns to MAC play. For Lynch and this offensive line, it’s merely a matter of gaining experience in the starting lineup; based on history, it might take this offense a few games, perhaps as much as a month, before it gels together as a group. I have confidence in the offense’s ability to get on the same page before games against Western Michigan and Toledo in the second half. The big story with this team will be the development on defense, where there’s enough returning talent to expect a wholesale improvement upon last year’s disappointing results. The Huskies are going to make a huge jump: the front seven is terrific and the secondary potentially outstanding, which will help N.I.U. counteract a projected step back on offense.
In all, you’re looking at a team that remains atop the West division. Western Michigan can’t be considered the favorite until it can stop the Huskies’ offensive system – and W.M.U. has no idea how to slow the Huskies down. Toledo, which is undergoing its own fair share of roster and coaching turnover, comes to DeKalb in November – and remember that N.I.U. has more than one week to prepare. Everything points to another eight-win regular season and MAC title game berth: the offense steps back just as the defense steps up, and there are enough weapons to ensure that the offensive decline will not be not as steep as the team’s losses suggest. And let’s consider one more thing: N.I.U. is so young as to make this, a projected eight-win regular season, a rebuilding year. Come 2013, the Huskies are going to be right back at the 11-win mark.
Dream season N.I.U. loses to Iowa to open the year and suffers an ugly loss at Ball State, but has no problem dispatching the other 10 on the regular season schedule – Western Michigan and Toledo by a combined 38 points. The Huskies head into the MAC title game at 10-2, 7-1 in conference play.
Nightmare season The Huskies struggle early, losing three of four games during non-conference play, and lose to Western Michigan, Toledo, Ball State and Eastern Michigan in the MAC. The Huskies fail to win six or more games in the regular season for only the second time since 1999.
In case you were wondering
Where do Northern Illinois fans congregate? Your best choice is The Dog Pound, a site with the most consistent level of Northern Illinois football chatter. For recruiting news, take a look at Huskie Pride. For a blog’s take, check out Red and Black Attack.
Northern Illinois’ all-name nominee RB Cameron Stingily.
Through 71 teams 276,714.
Who is No. 53? Tomorrow’s university was the first in the country to officially use its mascot in connection with its sports teams. Today, this mascot is used by seven other universities that play on the Division I level.
Tags: Akeem Daniels, Alan Baxter, Dave Doeren, Dechane Durante, Devon Butler, Jamaal Bass, Jamal Womble, Jared Volk, Jhony Faustin, Jimmie Ward, Jordan Lynch, Logan Pegram, MAC, Martel Moore, Mike Dunbar, Nabal Jefferson, Northern Illinois, Perez Ashford, Rashaan Melvin, Sean Progar, Tommylee Lewis, Tyler Loos, Tyrone Clark
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