Only one football team in the Mid-American Conference had what it took last year to get the better of the NIU Huskies, the eventual MAC champions.
That team – the Chippewas of Central Michigan University – is eager for a repeat performance Saturday, Sept. 29, when conference play finally begins across the league.
It won’t come easy, of course.
Saturday’s matchup takes place inside Huskie Stadium, where NIU (3-1) has won 17 straight games, including last week’s thrilling “boneyard” victory over Kansas. NIU has won 15 of its last 16 conference games and has not lost a MAC game at home since Nov. 12, 2008.
The Huskies’ three non-conference wins are the most by a Northern Illinois team since 2003, and quarterback Jordan Lynch already has collected two consecutive MAC West Offensive Player of the Week honors.
On the other hand, Central Michigan (2-1) just knocked off Iowa Hawkeyes – the team that edged NIU in Soldier Field Showdown III – by scoring nine points in the last 45 seconds.
So who’s ready for some football? Game time is 2:30 p.m. STUDENTS ARE ADMITTED FREE WITH THEIR NIU OneCard.
Head coach Dave Doeren counts himself among the excited for this weekend.
“It’s going to be a physical game, I know that. They’re averaging 200 yards per game rushing almost. Our offense is as well,” Doeren says. “They don’t beat themselves. They don’t turn it over a lot. They don’t get penalized a lot. They’ve had four penalties on the season, and I think their opponents have 25. I’m not sure how that’s happened, but that’s a pretty remarkable statistic. Their opponents are apparently getting the bad end of it.”
Central Michigan obviously is “a very good football team,” he says.
“Their quarterback, Radcliffe, is playing at a high level. His receivers, Wilson and Davis, are both making plays for them. Their tailback, Tipton, is doing a great job, averaging over 100 yards per game and seven yards per carry,” he says.
“Defensively they’re taking a lot of chances. They’re blitzing a lot more than they did a year ago. Two of their three games were against stationary quarterbacks, so that might have had something to do with that,” he adds. “ Their scheme on defense is totally different than last year. Our guys will have to do a good job making those adjustments on the offensive side of the ball.”
Fortunately, the Huskies rank 15th nationally with 13 quarterback sacks, led by senior defensive end Alan Baxter, whose five sacks are tied for 10th in the country.
Huskie defensive end Sean Progar watched film from last year’s 48-41 loss at Mt. Pleasant’s Kelly/Shorts Stadium in his preparation for Saturday.
“I think the biggest thing on defense is we didn’t tackle. We didn’t tackle well on defense, and we have had some games this year where we had trouble tackling and I know we are going to emphasize it this week,” Progar says.
“Another thing is turnovers,” he adds. “We haven’t had any turnovers this year. I think we have one or two and none against a Division I team so we have been emphasizing this. Not like we are trying but the biggest thing is jump on them early on defense, get some turnovers, get three and outs and get the ball back to the offense.”
The coach isn’t worried.
“The turnovers are going to come. We dropped two in that game. Stone had one for a touchdown and Tyrone had one for a touchdown. Both of them were easy catches,” he says. “I think we’re putting our guys in the right positions and we’re creating some fumbles that the other teams are recovering. We’ve just got to keep working it and stay the course.”
Need another good reason to fill Huskie Stadium? Both teams boast come-from-behind magic: NIU scored 17 unanswered points last weekend while the Chippewas were putting their explosive last minute into the record books.
Doeren’s not sure why his team has become such a good finisher.
“I don’t know. I wish I did. I wish I could bottle it up and sell it. That’d be pretty marketable, probably. I think my personality is a no quit, no panic. I’m pretty calm. There aren’t many situations in a game that I don’t think are correctable or that you can’t overcome. We just continue to play hard and have a one-play-at-a-time mentality,” he says.
“I think the team is going to be a four-quarter team because of that. They know that they’re just a play away from sparking it,” he adds. “My biggest challenge is to try and get to where we don’t have to do that to win. Our last two games last season and two of our games this year have been that way. And really, Iowa was close to being that way. If we could’ve gotten a first down there at the end, it could have been a drive that finished with a field goal.”
Part of the success comes from week-day workouts, however. Doeren ends every practice by challenging his fatigued players to either score – or stuff – a touchdown.
Tight end Jason Schepler appreciates that.
“We go over those situations over and over again, and I think when we get to the game, we just are able to execute it,” Schepler says. “I think it does give us a lot of confidence because we know that when it comes to the fourth quarter, that’s where we like to win games. But it would be nice to have a little bit of a lead going into the fourth quarter so we don’t always have to do that.”
Saturday will tell – and, again, it won’t come easy.
As the Huskies begin MAC play, Doeren says, all of the conference teams are thirsty for victories over NIU.
And, the coach promises, “it still comes down to fundamentals. We’re just going to keep working, and working, and working everyday to get better at them.”
“We are 3-1, but at the end of the day now the next eight weeks are what are going to count as far as the conference and the MAC race. I know that the MAC West in particular is probably as strong as it’s ever been,” Doeren says.
“I told the guys, the higher you climb the ladder, the more you expose yourself. I think being back-to-back MAC West champions and going into the season we had the nation’s longest winning streak, I think a lot of people circled our game as a game that they were going to have to bring their best,” he adds. “I would rather be in that position than the other. Our guys expect everybody’s best. We know we’re going to get trick plays. We know we’re going to have to play within ourselves and use the rules of our schemes to combat the new things that people show us.”