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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. 59: Northern Illinois

He’s Wisconsin other coordinator — former coordinator. The pork to Paul Chryst’s beef: underrated yet still more than capable of getting the job done, if you give it a chance. There was a time, in fact, when Dave Doeren was the hotter name than his recently knighted fellow U.W. assistant. Doeren was part of Bret Bielema’s first staff in Madison, serving as co-defensive coordinator in 2006 and 2007 before holding the position himself over the last three seasons. Yes, Wisconsin’s offense was the main storyline last fall during the team’s run to the Rose Bowl. Quick question, however: did the Badgers finish the year ranked higher in the F.B.S. in total defense or total offense? If you choose defense, nice job.

Conference
MAC, West

Location
DeKalb, Ill.

Nickname
Huskies

Returning starters
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 55

2010 record
(11-3, 8-0)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 34

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Army
  • Sept. 10
    at Kansas
  • Sept. 17
    Wisconsin (in Chicago)
  • Sept. 24
    Cal Poly
  • Oct. 1
    at C. Michigan
  • Oct. 8
    Kent St.
  • Oct. 15
    W. Michigan
  • Oct. 22
    at Buffalo
  • Nov. 1
    at Toledo
  • Nov. 8
    at Bowling Green
  • Nov. 15
    Ball St.
  • Nov. 25
    Eastern Michigan

Last year’s prediction

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. 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.

2010 recap

In a nutshell What this the best team in program history? That’s not a stretch. The Huskies won 11 games, a new program record, and scored 532 points, topping the program’s previous high – 421 points back in 2002 – by a pretty significant margin. The team was a culmination of all the work put in by Jerry Kill and his staff upon their arrival in 2008, in the win column and otherwise. Leading the way was the nation’s seventh-best running game, one that averaged 260.4 yards per game on an F.B.S.-best 6.3 yards per carry. In other words: Oregon, Auburn, Nevada, Wisconsin, everyone in the F.B.S. – none were better running the football on a carry-by-carry basis than the Huskies. And that, my friends, is all you need to know about Northern Illinois in 2010. This was a team that bulldozed, out-worked, out-punched and manhandled teams all season. So what happened in the MAC title game? I don’t know, and I’m not sure if even N.I.U. can explain that flat performance against Miami (Ohio). The Huskies still should have won – that final defensive play-call still has me scratching my head – but were upset, putting one black mark on a season chock-full of all-time highlights.

High point Nine straight wins after a 1-2 start. There was a road win over Minnesota; the program probably took notice of Kill during that trip. There was a win over then-MAC favorite Temple and a seven-point win at Western Michigan. The high point of the year, in my opinion, was a mauling of Toledo on national television on Nov. 9. The final? N.I.U. 65, Rockets 30. The Huskies scored 21 points in the second quarter and 28 in the third before calling off the dogs – or the Dogs, I guess.

Low point The loss to the RedHawks. This was disappointing. Five conferences held title games in 2010: A.C.C., Big 12, Conference USA, MAC and SEC. The favorite won in four of those five; only in the MAC, where favored N.I.U. lost, 26-21, did the underdog come out on top.

Tidbit Which Illinois institution has the best football program? Illinois has the historic edge, while Northwestern has probably made the most waves since 1995. But which of the three has the best record since 2000? It’s Northern Illinois, folks, and it’s by a pretty nice margin. Last fall’s 11-3 finish gave the Huskies a 79-56 mark over the last 11 years, ahead of Northwestern, 68-67, and well ahead of Illinois, 52-79.

Tidbit (rushing edition) Live by the sword, die by the sword. Northern Illinois went 22-0 under Kill when rushing for at least 200 yards but 2-16 when rushing for less than 200 yards. Both of the exceptions came against Ball State, surprisingly enough: the Huskies won last fall, 59-21, despite rushing for 194 yards, and won in 2009, 26-20, despite rushing for only 134 yards.

Former players in the N.F.L.

8 WR Britt Davis (Denver), OT Ryan Diem (Indianapolis), LB Larry English (San Diego), OT Doug Free (Dallas), WR Sam Hurd (Dallas), FB Jake Nordin (Detroit), RB Michael Turner (Atlanta), RB Garrett Wolfe (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Foreign (non-Britush) soldiers during Revolutionary War
1. Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette.
2. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben.
3. Tadeusz Kosciuszko.
4. Bernard de Galvez.
5. Johann de Kalb.

Coaching

Dave Doeren (Drake ’94), entering his first season. Doeren is a 16-year veteran of the coaching ranks, with the last nine taking place on the F.B.S. ranks. He made his reputation at Wisconsin, where he spent the last five years: first as co-defensive coordinator along with Mike Hankwitz before taking on those duties himself in 2008. How good were the Badgers over the last three years? Not an immediate hit, Doeren ingratiated himself to the Wisconsin faithful by lifting this defense out of the doldrums and into the nation’s elite; last fall, 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 it’s been a fairly rapid rise for Doeren, only 39 and with nine years of F.B.S. experience 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. If I’m a MAC team, I’m looking for the next Kill, not the next up-and-coming Big Ten coordinator. But Doeren is an intriguing hire, thanks to his youth, energy and promise.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Kill took much of his staff in DeKalb with him to Minnesota, so Doeren’s staff is nearly brand-new. Minus one holdover: Tom Matukewicz was retained as the linebacker coach, allowing Doeren to keep a team and fan favorite who led the Huskies to last December’s Humanitarian Bowl win. He’s a big get for Doeren, a rookie head coach who needs all the help he can get in learning the strengths of his new roster. The new N.I.U. coordinators: Matt Canada will lead the offense after doing the same at Indiana for the last four years, and Jay Niemann, late of Hardin-Simmons University, will lead the defense. But rest assured that Doeren will have a major say in the defensive game plan.

Players to watch

He broke into the starting lineup midway through 2008, battled injuries in 2009 and even faced a bit of a challenge to his starting role heading into 2010, but this offense — and this team — now belongs solely to senior quarterback Chandler Harnish. He just gets better and better with each added season of experience: last fall, Harnish threw for 2,530 yards with 21 touchdowns against five picks, completing 64.7 percent of his attempts, and added another 836 yards and 7 scores on the ground. Numbers don’t lie, and Harnish’s show a quarterback well-suited to a multifaceted offensive attack.

But the new offense, as run by Canada, will place a greater emphasis on the passing game. Can Harnish deliver a similar performance if asked to do more with his arm? You would have wondered back in 2008 or 2009; now, as a senior, Harnish is ready to deliver regardless of the coaching changes and the philosophical tweaks. N.I.U. needs him completely healthy — Harnish has missed time in the past with knee issues — both because of his strong play and a lack of options behind him on the depth chart. Sophomore Jordan Lynch will probably be the backup, but he seems too far away as a passer to be able to lead the Huskies through the MAC.

The Huskies have the receivers to make an increased passing attack work. There may not be a game-changer, but what N.I.U. lacks in that regard it more than makes up for in numbers. Four of last season’s five leading pass catchers are back in the fold: senior Willie Clark (42 catches for 602 yards and 7 scores), junior Martel Moore (40 for 525), senior Nathan Palmer (29 for 532 and 6 scores) and junior Perez Ashford (19 for 206). There’s some big-play ability here, most notably with Palmer, and there may be more on the horizon in converted quarterback DeMarcus Grady — depending on quickly he takes to the switch — and youngsters Da’Ron Brown and Anthony Johnson. Brown worked himself into the mix with a very good spring. MAC cornerbacks and safeties are going to have a hard time with this group.

Harnish might need to do more on the ground without Chad Spann doing yeoman’s work on the ground. Or he may not: Spann’s nose for the end zone may be irreplaceable, but the Huskies have several former reserves chomping at the bit for a chance to become this team’s lead back. One is former JUCO transfer Jasmin Hopkins (366 yards, 9.3 yards per carry); he’s a breakaway threat. Another is former North Carolina transfer Jamal Womble, a very highly sought after recruit who can be the smash to Hopkins’ dash. Looking for more dash? Try out sophomores Leighton Settle — the talk of the spring at the position — and Akeem Daniels. How about more smash? Take a look at 6’2-inch, 250-pound former Iowa State transfer Cameron Bell (228 yards). Spann will be missed, but this running game will continue to punish the opposition.

And you know why? It’s not just because of a talented group of running backs; it’s largely to do with one of the best offensive lines in the country. All five starters are back, four of them seniors, three of them all-MAC picks — in short, this is a line that could make any offense look good. It’s a group anchored by tackles Trevor Olson and Keith Otis, with the most telling thing I can say about Olson is that even as a lineman he deserves to be in the mix for MAC Offensive Player of the Year.

There are no slouches on the interior of the line either. Senior center Scott Wedige was a first-team all-MAC pick as a first year starter in 2010, turning a position of concern into a strength. Senior right guard Joe Pawlak, a second-team pick, sets the tone in the running game. The lone senior in the starting lineup is junior left guard Logan Pegram, who started nine games last fall, missing the rest due to injury. He’ll serve in the shadows surrounded by this quartet of seniors. These five are going to punch defensive linemen in the mouth all season.

It’s a good thing Doeren brings a strong defensive background to his new position. He and Niemann will have their work cut out for them replacing nine starters off last year’s defense, including two would-be starting linebackers who are due to miss the coming season. The defense in 2010 was good, if often overshadowed by the offense, and while the offense remains strong enough to win games alone, N.I.U. isn’t reaching the 10-win mark if Doeren can’t work some magic with a new-look group.

Sean Progar is back, but Jake Coffman is not — for real this time, I promise. Like Coffman before him, Progar might be the MAC’s best defensive lineman: he was a first-team all-conference pick last fall, when he made 39 tackles (10 for loss, second on the team) and 4 sacks. Coffman’s return to DeKalb postponed Progar’s ascension to the forefront of the defensive line for one season; this fall, Progar goes from understudy to unquestioned leader of the front four — if not the entire defense. That’s not too much of a stretch in the least: he’s the lone returning starter in the front seven.

N.I.U. does have some marginally experienced linemen to choose from as it attempts to rebuild up front. It may be a by-committee tandem on the opposite side from Progar, where the Huskies can perhaps use junior Alan Baxter on first and second down and let sophomore Joe Windsor loose on passing downs. Both played a nice amount in 2010, Baxter more than Windsor, and could work well in concert with each other. If healthy, former JUCO transfer Kyle Jenkins could be an asset.

Short, squat, productive junior Nabal Jefferson (25 tackles, 2.5 sacks) is a definite starter at tackle. His 2010 totals came as a reserve, so we can go one of two ways looking ahead: one, Jefferson could give even more in a full-time role; or two, Jefferson is best suited for a reserve role, as a high-energy guy who could provide a great boost in doses. Northern Illinois believes the former, and there’s really no reason to expect anything other than a nice season for the first-year starter. Who’s going to join him in the starting lineup? You want to say that it’ll be Anthony Wells, who has the speed and burst to be very disruptive, but he seems too light to hold up. If N.I.U. wants size, it could just turn to 310-pound redshirt freshman Frank Boenzi or senior Ron Newcombe, though Newcombe won’t be back on the practice field until the fall.

Meet free safety Tommy Davis, the second of this team’s two returning defensive starters. Davis (73 tackles, 1 interception) is coming off a very good 2010 campaign, serving as a key cog in this team’s very underrated pass defense. While Davis, like Progar, is the lone returning starter among his group, I do think the secondary returns enough pieces to keep N.I.U. ranked among the MAC’s best against the pass. Unlike up front, the Huskies return a nice blend of talent and experience in the defensive backfield.

That’s largely thanks to four returning cornerbacks: two with valuable playing time under their belts, two younger guys with a bright future. Junior Rashaan Melvin takes on the mantle of being this team’s stopper — a role he has the qualifications to fill — after making 39 tackles and a pair of interceptions as the third cornerback in 2010. Sophomore Dominique Ware, who got his feet wet in spots as a rookie, will join him in the starting lineup. There will be competition for the nickel back spot. Redshirt freshman Sean Evans made a strong claim to that role during the spring, but a late injury may have allowed Jimmie Ward to move ahead in the rotation.

Position battle(s) to watch

Linebacker Hey, at least Doeren knows a thing or two about the position. But the losses at linebacker heading into 2011 are nothing if not discouraging: the Huskies lost leading tackler Alex Kube to graduation, returning starter Tyrone Clark for personal reasons — though he should be back in 2012 — and all-MAC contender Devon Butler to an off-field injury. Kube we saw coming; Clark’s one-year hiatus stings; but it’s losing Butler that hurts most of all. It was Butler (80 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 1 interception) that was poised to take on a leadership role at middle linebacker, on the field and off, for a defense decimated by losses to graduation. The situation in the middle isn’t good: three players — Victor Jacques, Mike Hellams and Cameron Stingley — alternated snaps with the first team during the spring, with Jacques making a strong claim to the starting role with a strong conclusion to those practices. Combined tackle total from this trio in 2010: seven. Clearly, N.I.U. is going to suffer a step back at the position. But hopes are relatively high about the potential of outside linebackers Pat Schiller and Jordan Delegal (38 tackles), the clear starters heading into September. Schiller had a nice 2009 season, when he finished third on the team with 82 tackles, but injuries slowed him down a year ago. Schiller can be a big piece of this defense if he can show he’s fully recovered from last season’s knee injury. In fact, I could so far as to say that Schiller is the most important new starter — though he did start in 2009 — on this defense: a big year from the junior would go a long way towards aiding the team’s losses along the front seven.

Game(s) to watch

I would have loved to have seen if last year’s Huskies could have run on Wisconsin. Alas, it’s a new year, and I don’t think Northern Illinois has what it takes to hang with the Badgers — though the venue, Chicago’s Solider Field, makes it a game to watch. In terms of conference play, there are really only three contenders in the MAC West. The Huskies are one, of course, and get Western Michigan at home and Toledo on the road.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. You could say it’s because the Huskies get Toledo on the road and be partly correct: the Rockets seem better on paper, for starters, but that the Huskies head there for that season-defining game doesn’t help their chances. But 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. It helps to have a new coach with a strong defensive background, but I’m not sure if Doeren and his new staff will be able to cobble together a defense good enough to win the MAC. There are huge holes along each level of the defense, gaps that loom particularly large in the front seven. At least the offense is good enough to guarantee another bowl berth, if not lead this team to eight wins in the regular season. I think that’s a pretty safe bet. But that’s only if Doeren and his new staff can hit the ground running. Only a really ill-prepared, really ill-suited, really inept coach couldn’t lead these Huskies to six or seven wins; we don’t know much about Doeren, but we do know enough to say N.I.U. isn’t going to drop off the map. He’ll be able to keep things rolling along; can he maintain this pace, let alone build upon it? That remains to be seen. 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.

Dream season The Huskies repeat as MAC West champs despite the coaching change, topping Toledo on the road and, unlike last season, winning the conference title game.

Nightmare season From 11-3 overall to 4-8; from 8-0 in the MAC to 3-5.

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, who provided that very cool world cloud above the coaching section; Mike Breese, who does really good football work for the site, took Doeren’s introductory press conference and went to town.

Word Count

Through 62 teams 181,739.

Up Next

Who is No. 58? Tomorrow’s university is the lone institution in its state to be accredited to offer degrees in art, music, dance and theater.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. HW86 says:

    Looks like SMU is up next.

  2. NUwildcat09 says:

    I’m a bit disappointed Casimir Pulaski didn’t make your arbitrary top 5.

  3. Steve says:

    NIU and SMU back to back. I could watch those two teams play everyday.

  4. Ezra says:

    Paul: I’m surprised that you can rank a post-sophomore-slump June Jones QB, working in tandem with C-USA’s best runningback, and behind the nation’s most experienced offensive line (adding back its star, LeRibeus), and opposite an increasingly stout defense, so low.

    I’m very interested to see how you come to that ranking, and I can’t help but think you’re going to re-rank SMU much higher in a few months.

    Paul: I’ve gone back and forth more times with the Mustangs than any other team so far. At end of last season, had S.M.U. knocking on door of Top 25 for 2011. But teams have to fall somewhere. That I won’t post the Mustangs until Tuesday just gives me more and more time to second-guess myself. Which I’ve been doing for a few days.

  5. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    I don’t think it can be SMU since at least Texas and Texas A&M have all of the listed programs. My best guess is Nevada.

  6. Dolph says:

    I’m with NUwildcat09. It’s the Northern Illinois review, the arbitrary list is foreign Revolutionary War soldiers and Casimir Pulaski doesn’t make the top five? This will be remembered next March.

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