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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 55: Northern Illinois

After taking a few years to gain their footing, the Huskies are bred to win the MAC West.

Good coaches can be found anywhere, from high school through the N.F.L., in the F.C.S., the F.B.S. and anywhere in between. Case in point: Jerry Kill of Northern Illinois. Just where did this guy come from? Kill’s in DeKalb via Southern Illinois, via Emporia State via Saginaw Valley State — the one in Michigan. No, he’s never been a coordinator for a national champion. He’s not a Nick Saban disciple. He hasn’t even — my goodness, can this be true? — coached a day in the N.F.L. Kill’s just a football coach, no flash, few frills. Just like his football team.

MAC, West

DeKalb, Ill.


Returning starters
16 (7 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 80

2009 record
(7-6, 5-3)

Last year’s

No. 69

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    at Iowa St.
  • Sept. 11
    North Dakota
  • Sept. 18
    at Illinois
  • Sept. 25
    at Minnesota
  • Oct. 2
    at Akron
  • Oct. 9
  • Oct. 16
  • Oct. 23
    Central Michigan
  • Oct. 30
    at Western Mich.
  • Nov. 9
  • Nov. 20
    at Ball St.
  • Nov. 26
    at Eastern Mich.

Last year’s prediction

Despite its losses, which are very troubling on defense, I am convinced that Kill will keep this team from experiencing anything more than a subtle drop-off from its 2008 level of play. Why? Because the Huskies performed well in the areas that, traditionally, make good teams: rushing offense, ball control, special teams and defense. Is there any reason why N.I.U. would suddenly stop being productive? Over all, I predict Northern Illinois to match last fall’s 6-6 regular season, and if the defense remains strong, to make a run at seven wins.

2009 recap

In a nutshell If anything, last season’s Huskies were proof positive that when you add a solid run game to a stout defense, you’ll more often than not have a solid season. Last fall saw Northern Illinois lead the MAC — and finish 19th nationally — in rushing, averaging 202.4 yards per game, while also leading the conference — ranking 30th nationally — in total defense, allowing 329.9 yards per game. Who knew such a combination would work out well? It also allowed N.I.U. to remain close in nearly every game, losing only two games by more than a touchdown, two by a field goal or less. Solid coaching, physical play, powerful running game, stellar defense. A recipe for a winning season.

High point A 28-21 win over Purdue was nice, especially when considering Northern Illinois’ narrow setbacks against B.C.S. competition in Kill’s first season (by four points at Minnesota and Tennessee). The Huskies sealed bowl eligibility with five conference victories in six weeks from Oct. 3 – Nov. 12; the most impressive of the bunch was a 38-3 win over Western Michigan.

Low point As most good teams tend to do, Northern Illinois stayed within striking distance of victory in nearly all of its losses prior to postseason play. The one exception was a 45-31 loss to Central Michigan in the season finale, a game made to look closer than it actually was due to a 21-7 fourth quarter edge for the Huskies.

Tidbit Kill’s 13 victories over his first two seasons in DeKalb is a new program record, shattering the previous record of 12 wins set by three previous Northern Illinois coaches: William Wirtz from 1910-11; George Evans from 1929-30; and Jerry Ippoliti from 1971-72. In comparison — though this comparison means nothing — it took Joe Novak until his fifth season with the Huskies to win his 13th game.

Tidbit (passing edition) Northern Illinois threw for 135 yards or less five times in MAC play, yet went 5-0 in such games. The Huskies beat Western Michigan by 35 points despite throwing for 135 yards; Miami (Ohio) by five points despite throwing for only 60 yards on 10 attempts; Akron by 17 while throwing for 62 yards; Eastern Michigan by 44 points while making only seven attempts, throwing for 119 yards; and Ball State by six while throwing for 91 yards.

Former players in the N.F.L.

9 WR Britt Davis (New York Jets), OT Ryan Diem (Indianapolis), LB Larry English (San Diego), OT Doug Free (Dallas), WR Sam Hurd (Dallas), FB Jake Nordin (Detroit), WR Matt Simon (New Orleans), RB Michael Turner (Atlanta), RB Garrett Wolfe (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Basketball players from UConn
1. G Ray Allen.
2. G Richard Hamilton.
3. F Clifford Robinson.
4. G Ben Gordon.
5. F Caron Butler.


Jerry Kill (Southwestern College ’83), 13-13 after a pair of seasons with the Huskies. Kill has done a fine job replacing Joe Novak, who slipped to 2-10 in the last of 12 seasons he spent as the face of the N.I.U. program. Kill led the Huskies to a four-win improvement in his first season, a year that saw N.I.U. make significant strides on defense. The Huskies allowed only 234 points, the program’s lowest total since 1992 and a sizable (136 points) improvement over the team’s effort in 2007. Similar strides have come on offense, where the Huskies have gone from scoring 19.1 points per game in 2007 to 28.6 last fall, the program’s best output since 2005. More of the same a year ago: largely under the radar, N.I.U. surpassed expectations in landing another bowl berth, giving the program two in as many years under Kill. It’s safe to say he’s been a very good hire, and a fitting successor to Novak; his predecessor built the program — where it currently stands — but Kill seems capable of leading to equal, if not greater heights. Kill was hired by Northern Illinois after seven seasons at Southern Illinois (2001-7), where he compiled a 55-32 career record. The Salukis, who reached the F.C.S. playoffs in each of his final five seasons, won three consecutive Gateway Conference championships (2003-5) and spent a total of 64 consecutive weeks ranked in the F.C.S. top 20 between 2003-7. Pretty heady stuff, especially when considering S.I.U. went 32-66 in the nine years prior to Kill’s arrival. Success wasn’t immediate for Kill either, as the team went 5-18 over his first two seasons (including a 1-10 finish in 2001). Kill was awarded for his success with the Salukis with the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award in 2004 and the Liberty Mutual National Coach of the Year award in 2007. Prior to Southern Illinois, Kill served as the head coach at Emporia State (11-11 from 1999-2000) and Saginaw Valley State (38-14 from 1994-98).

Players to watch

The quarterback job will come down to either Chandler Harnish, the incumbent starter, or DeMarcus Grady, who has spelled Harnish in each of the last two seasons. As of now, the competition remains undecided: Harnish is battling a knee injury, though it won’t require surgery, while Grady seemed to take a step forward as a passer during the spring. Who will start the year in the starting lineup? If he’s healthy, it will be Harnish. He has been solid when in the lineup, never asked to do too much but able to keep opponent’s honest when packed in the box to limit the powerful Northern Illinois ground game. Last fall, Harnish threw for 1,670 yards and 11 scores while completing 64.1 percent of his attempts; this despite, as noted, battling a mid-season knee injury. My main concern? That Harnish, who’s valuable as a runner, will not maintain his agility when recovering from his setback. If he can’t move around in the pocket, Grady should be the choice. Let’s see how it plays out in the fall.

The ground game is consistent, thanks to a commitment to the attack from the Northern Illinois coaching staff and the stellar — often explosive — play from the N.I.U. stable of backs. Depth will be tested by the off-season departure of Meco Brown, the would-be junior who finished second on the team with 645 yards rushing a year ago. His departure will increase the importance of senior Chad Spann, who was the MAC’s best back a year ago: 1,038 yards rushing and 20 combined scores, 19 coming on the ground. In a perfect world, however, Spann would be limited to 20 touches per game on the ground; if N.I.U. wishes to continue to run the ball 30-35 times per game, it must locate a secondary back able to help carry the load. That player might be JUCO transfer Jasmin Hopkins, a highly productive ball-carrier on the junior college ranks who arrived in time to participate during spring practice.

Northern Illinois doesn’t ask too much from its receiver corps, which is not necessarily a bad thing: it’s a steady group, though unspectacular, and is best suited merely taking pressure off the running game rather than leading the offense. However, six of last season’s top seven pass-catchers do return; perhaps this group is ready to take on a larger role.

Senior Landon Cox leads the way: he lead N.I.U. with 45 receptions for 533 yards and 4 scores last fall, nearly doubling his next-nearest competitor in each of the two former categories. The Huskies also hope to land a rejuvenated performance from junior Nate Palmer, who went from the team’s top deep threat in 2008 to a little-used option a season ago. Northern Illinois also returns junior Willie Clark (19 receptions for 220 yards) and sophomore Martrel Moore (16 for 189), with another sophomore, Perez Ashford, poised to take on a significant role. Redshirt freshman Anthony Johnson had a huge spring, displaying premier athleticism and leaping ability, and could be the surprise of this receiver corps.

Northern Illinois will dominate on defense. That’s not too strong a word: when it comes to MAC play, few teams will be able to move the ball with consistency on this fast, athletic, ferocious attack. It all starts up front, where the Huskies bring to the table as potent a starting four — as well a solid second line — as any non-B.C.S. conference team in the country.

This line received a mammoth boost when senior end Jake Coffman opted to return to the program after he contemplated leaving the team during the off-season. The 25-year old former Marine is a heavy contender for conference defensive player of the year: as last season illustrated, he is often a disruptive force against the pass, and is developing as a stout defender against the run. While Coffman’s the present at end, the future is sophomore Sean Progar. Even when starting only half the season, Progar finished his debut season with 30 tackles (8 for loss) and 6 sacks; even better days are ahead. While not quite as powerful as the two ends, the interior of the line is strong — and deep. Seniors D.J. Pirkle and Mike Krause will start, Krause over the nose, while Brian Lawson and Ron Newcombe will stand as the top two reserves. Lawson earned significant action last fall while Krause lost time due to injury.

I really like N.I.U’s cornerback tandem of Chris Smith and Patrick George. Neither lacks for athletic ability, particularly Smith: the former JUCO transfer was an immediate star last fall, and will be one of the MAC’s top defensive backs in 2010. Depth at cornerback is a slight concern, though that issue could be resolved with solid campaigns from Rashaan Melvin and Kiaree Daniels. Depth at safety is no concern, particular if returning starter Mike Sobol recovers from his knee injury by September.

Sobol was likely not going to remain in the starting lineup regardless of his health: former Syracuse quarterback turned N.I.U. walk-on Garrett Barnas had a breakout spring, leaping from potential limited contributor to starting free safety. Sophomore Tommy Davis is another option at free safety; the former cornerback may take some time to acclimate to his new position, however, though he doesn’t lack for ability. The leader of the secondary is junior strong safety Tracy Wilson. He led the Huskies with 93 tackles a season ago, lending a meaningful hand in the team’s stout run defense, and should develop into a better defender against the pass with experience.

The linebacker corps features senior Alex Kube on the strong side, the former safety who continues to develop in his new role. While Kube has yet to match the production he flashed in the secondary, he’s a valuable member of the front seven — not to mention a team leader. The staff moved junior Pat Schiller from the middle to the weak side in an effort to get sophomore Devon Butler on the field, and for good reason. Butler is a rising star, one very capable of cracking the 100-tackle mark en route to all-MAC accolades in his debut season in the starting lineup. While Schiller has changed positions, he’s no lock to remain the starting lineup: he left the spring trailing Jordan Delegal on the weak side. The former JUCO transfer made 29 tackles (5.5 for loss) and 4 sacks a year ago, leaving me intrigued as to what he can accomplish when let loose.

Position battles to watch

Offensive line I could certainly list quarterback here, as Harnish and Grady will continue to tussle for snaps when N.I.U. returns to the practice field in August. Yet it’s difficult to ignore what the Huskies have lost along the offensive line: I like what the team returns up front, but holes exist at center and left guard. Losing Eddie Amaski and Jason Oneybuagu hurts; the all-conference pair lent a large degree of consistency to this offensive group. Junior left tackle Trevor Olson will be counted for a leadership role. He’s ready to take on this mantle: Olson has all-conference ability and, due to the playing time he’s received over the past two years, a solid amount of experience. Like Olson, junior right Joe Pawlek has all-conference potential. However, Northern Illinois will face some issues at the remaining interior spots and at right tackle, though the team does return another junior, Adam Kiehl, on the strong side. The former tight end has not taken immediately to his new position, though he certainly has the athleticism to turn into a solid contributor at right tackle. The Huskies could turn to senior Keith Otis, a meaningful reserve over the last two seasons, should Kiehl struggle. In good news, some untested linemen stepped up during the spring: senior Ed Jackson was a wonderful surprise at left guard; and junior Scott Wedige performed nicely in Adamski’s vacated center spot. It was thought that Jackson, a former defensive lineman, would be pushed by sophomore Logan Pegram, but it seems that Jackson will start the season in the starting lineup.

Game(s) to watch

First, the three non-conference tilts against B.C.S. conference opposition. These games provide N.I.U. with a chance to make some national noise outside the MAC, a great opportunity for the Huskies. In terms of conference play, the Oct. 9 home date against Temple is a potential conference title game preview; the Huskies can make a statement in dominating Central Michigan, the reigning conference champion, two weeks later; and the Nov. 9 home game with Toledo pits the best two teams in the West division.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I don’t think there’s any question that Northern Illinois is the best team in the MAC West division: Central Michigan’s projected decline opens the division back up to debate, and the Huskies are clearly ahead of the pack. Toledo will be good — challenging for a bowl in my opinion — and both the Chippewas and Western Michigan deserve our respect; nevertheless, the question is not whether N.I.U. can take the West, but how good this team can be. Can the Huskies win 10 games? Yes, in my opinion. The final record will be dictated by how Northern Illinois fares against B.C.S. conference opposition. I understand that I have Iowa State, Minnesota and Illinois ranked behind the Huskies: that does not mean N.I.U. will go 3-0 against that trio, though I would be shocked if the Huskies did not take at least one of the three games. Question No. 2: Can N.I.U. win the MAC altogether? Without question. Do I think it will? No, I don’t. I really like Temple — even more than I like the Huskies — and feel the Owls are the clear top dog in the conference. Don’t let that detract from how I feel about Northern Illinois. Ten wins is clearly possible. Nine wins would not be shocking. Eight wins seems likely, with at least six wins coming in MAC play, with a definite bowl bid in the cards. When all is said and done, I feel very confident in N.I.U. landing a berth in the conference title game; this will be the program’s best team since 2004.

Dream season The Huskies top two of three B.C.S. conference opponents, helping them land a 10-win finish, complete with a MAC championship.

Nightmare season With all the promise surrounding this team, anything less than a bowl trip would be extremely disappointing.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 54? Our next program has not had a winning season since 2002, suffering four campaigns with at least nine losses over this span.

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  1. havik912 says:

    this is Washington i believe…

  2. Wyatt says:

    UW might be next, but should be higher – above ucla stanford and arizona if you break it down position by position

  3. katster says:

    Yeah, I was going to say UW, too. And the record bears it out: 2004 has 10 losses, 2005 and 2007 both have nine, and 2008 was the horrific 0-12 campaign.

    And as for keeping them this low, I think it’s a matter of ‘show me’ before moving them higher. That said, with Locker at QB and Sark as a coach, I think they’ll be back in a bowl this year.

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    UW,UA,and UCLA are all pretty close to one another. I do like UW to do slightly better than UCLA – plus they play each other in Seattle. Stanford is on another level – better quarterback, easier schedule and perhaps the conference champion with turmoil at USC and Masoli leaving Oregon.

  5. Miami Huskie says:

    Great write-up on the Huskies. Kill is a great coach,but the mid-major paradox is when a coach gets a great team, he leaves for a BCS team. Let’s hope NIU has that problem with Kill. GO HUSKIES!

  6. Zaboo says:

    I’d put UW ahead of Stanford for sure–loss of Gerhart and bad defense make up for Luck and the O-line (which are both really good), IMO. Will be the most overrated team of the preseason.

    UCLA and UA are also arguable, but its really a crapshoot picking the PAC-10 this year. Should be exciting.

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