Two of the nation’s best college quarterbacks will take the Huskie Stadium field Saturday as NIU’s Chandler Harnish and Western Michigan’s Alex Carder lead their teams into battle.
So says Coach Dave Doeren, whose 3-3 Huskies bring a 40-10 toppling of Kent State into the annual Homecoming game.
Kick-off is set for 2:30 p.m. Students are admitted free with their NIU OneCards.
“(We’re) really excited about the opportunity to play a very good football team from Western Michigan,” Doeren said.
“You’re going to see a lot of firepower on the field. I know both defenses have their hands full this week,” the coach added. “I also feel Western’s special teams are tremendous. They have a kicker that has 15 touchbacks. They’ve done a really nice job on the kickoff return; they’re fifth in the nation in kickoff return. So it’s going to be a great challenge for our football team this week in all three phases.”
Western Michigan (4-2) leads the overall series against NIU at 23-13, notching 11 of those wins in DeKalb.
NIU has claimed victory in the last two matchups, however, including last fall’s nail-biter in Kalamazoo.
“Our team went up there last year, and it was a four-quarter game. Went down to the final play – an interception. They know how good this team is coming in. I think both teams know that this game’s been circled on each other’s’ calendars for a while,” Doeren said.
“They lost a heartbreaker to us last year. It’s a game that we need if we have any chance of going forward toward Detroit. It’s a game that we have to have, and it’s a game that they want as well. It’s two very good teams.”
Harnish, a threat with his arm and his feet, is the least-sacked quarterback in the Mid-American Conference.
He “has a great feel for where to go in the pocket to get away. He knows how far he needs to run to get the first (down),” Doeren said.
NIU’s offensive linemen are proud of their role in keeping Harnish upright and off the turf.
“We’ve given up some sacks that have been on some rollouts that we jab Chandler with every now and then,” offensive lineman Logan Pegram said. “But it’s something we take pride in, and it’s something any offensive line should take pride in.”
Of course, Carder and the MAC West-leading Broncos also pose considerable offensive threats.
“(Carder) has tremendous rhythm. Last week he scrambled all over the place; when Bowling Green took away some of their throws, he took off running, so we’ll have to be able to bottle him up,” Doeren said.
“Their receiver Jordan White is averaging 11 catches a game. We have to find a way, if he gets the ball, not allowing them to be down-the-field plays, to be able to prevent him from taking over the game. (He’s a) good route runner, catches the ball in his hands, gets vertical after the catch,” he said. “A lot of his catches are uncontested, surprisingly enough. As good as he is, there’s a ton of plays where he’s just sitting in zones by himself.”
Fortunately, NIU’s defense stood up last week against Kent State.
Northern Illinois allowed just 70 yards and recorded seven sacks. The Huskie defense opened the scoring just four minutes into the game when junior defensive lineman Nabal Jefferson intercepted a Kent State screen pass and went 25 yards to give NIU an early 7-0 advantage.
Jefferson’s interception was the first of three turnovers created by the NIU defense on the day.
“I think you saw the defensive ends finally shut it down at the depth of the quarterback and power to the pocket. You saw defensive tackles maintain their rush lanes and force the quarterback to flush to a guy that was going to capture him, as opposed to allowing him to run through their gap. It’s just discipline and rush lane integrity; it’s something we didn’t have,” Doeren said.
“Now they have to do it against a better offense. Kent State statistically is not a very good offense. Now we have to do it against a really good scheme, good quarterback, some good receivers. It’s going to be a challenge, I think, for both defenses this week.”
Defensive lineman Ron Newcomb said the Huskies must cultivate last week’s momentum.
“The game’s over with; we have to use our confidence and build on that for this week. We have to keep working on our tackling and the things we struggled with earlier in the year so we can get better. Other than that, we just have to recognize things better, and get a grasp of what they’re doing better.”
“The defensive linemen did an excellent job of getting to (Kent State quarterback Spencer Keith), applying pressure, making him throw the ball way short or out of the way, and just shut them down offensively,” safety Dechane Durante said.
“It made it real easy. It’s good to watch the big guys get back there and take the pressure off the secondary. I have my back to them and I look up, and I see them already scrambling.”