NIU will chose between two different and effective QBs to be their starter this fall. Senior Phil Horvath led the NCAA in completion last year at 70.6%. He had over 2,000 yards last year with 18 TDs before breaking his arm early in the game against Central Michigan last year. Dan Nicholson played superbly in relief in leading the Huskies to three-straight November victories over CMU, Toledo and WMU. A run oriented team by nature, Northern ranked 39th in the country in passing last season and 16th in total offense. With either QB starting, look for NIU to have very good quarterback play this season. There is solid depth too with Ryan Morris and Billy Lowe.
Running Backs When healthy, Garrett Wolfe is one of the top-five running backs in college football. Yes, that is a loaded statement, but it’s true. Just ask Michigan, whom Wolfe rushed for 148 yards and averaged nearly 9-yards per carry against them last season. Or ask Northwestern, whom Wolfe rushed for 245-yards and three TDs. In all, Wolfe rushed for 1,580 yards and 16 TDs, and those stats would have been far greater if he would not have missed three games due to a knee injury. His strong second half last year at Toledo knocked the Rockets out of the MAC Championship game. He has seven games where he has rushed for over 200-yards and one game where he has topped 300 during his collegiate career. The 4.4/40 speedster should earn All-American honors this year and is a leading candidate for the MAC Offensive Player of the Year Award. Cas Prime is a proven backup while Justin Anderson, Montell Clanton and Ricky Crider add depth. Clanton moved up the depth chart during the spring.
Receivers/Tight Ends NIU has the fastest group of receivers in Joe Novak’s 11-year tenure. Former QB Britt Davis set a school freshman record 42 balls for 441 yards and three TDs last season. This multi-talented player can also line up as a QB in certain gadget formations.. Marcus Perez and Matt Simon are solid prospects who look to be starters this year, along with Orlando Moore. Jarret Carter and Greg Turner will figure in the mix. Overall, this should be a very solid wide receiver corps. TE Jake Nordin earned 2nd team all-conference honors last year and Brandon Davis is a good backup as each TE is in the 6-4 260-pound range.
Offensive Linemen The success of Northern Illinois over the past few years can be directly attributed to quality offensive line play – this year will be no different. Doug Free is one of the best offensive tackles in the country and several NFL gurus already have him listed as a possible first round draft choice in April. At 6-7 310-pounds, Free will most certainly garner some sort of All-American honors this season. Jon Brost also returns but NIU must replace three starters from last year’s unit that paved the way to 208 rushing yards per game. Eddie Adamski, Matt Rogers and Chris Acevedo are the new starters as the line should be very good once again. While the 2006 OL will probably not quite be as solid as last season, 2005's group was considered one of the school’s all-time best offensive lines.
Defensive Linemen Northern returns nine lettermen along the front four including DE starters Ken West and Larry English. Other DE prospects are Craig Rusch and Brandon Bice. Zach Holycross (6-7, 290) and Adam Schroeder are the DTs. Eric Pittman, Brad Benson and Kris Cooke add depth as there is some very good size within the defensive trenches. NIU ranked 58th in the country last year against the run giving up nearly 150-yards per game. That number should drop this fall with seven letter winners and several quality backups returning.
Linebackers Last year the Huskies rotated four freshmen into the three starting LB spots. As the season went on this youth improved and year two of these underclassmen should be much better. NIU is scheduled to start two sophomores, Phil Brown and Tim McCarthy, and redshirt freshman David Bryant. McCarthy recorded 101 tackles last season while Brown added 51. Bryant was originally signed as RB, but moved over to the defensive side of the ball this season. Josh Allen, Zach Larson and the lone senior of the group, Keenan Blalark, provide depth. There are a lot of athletes and more speed throughout this LB unit, but not much size. The average NIU LB listed in their two deep lineup averages 5-11 220-pounds per man.
Defensive Backs The defensive backfield should be much improved from last year’s #65 national ranking in pass defense due to more experience across the board. Twin brothers Alvah and Adriel Hansboro are the corners while Dustin Utschig is an all-conference performer at safety. Mark Reiter takes over for Ray Smith at the other safety position. Smith earned 1st team all-conference honors last year. Melvin Rice is a young player that could excel this fall along with highly-regarded true freshman Alex Kube.
Special Teams Special teams are always a point of emphasis on Joe Novak-coached teams and this year will be no different. PK Chris Nendick is very accurate and has made 94 straight PATs. Sophomore Andy Dittbenner needs to improve as a punter. There is a lot of speed from the kick return specialists, namely Marcus Perez and Mark Reiter.
Final Thoughts Coach Joe Novak is one the very good guys in the coaching industry – when is he going to catch a break? After suffering losses to Toledo for years that kept them out of the MAC Championship Game, the Huskies finally beat the Rockets, and in Toledo no less. They were on their way to their first MAC title since 1983. Everyone was happy for the 11-year veteran when he led Akron late in the game and looked to have the conference title and Motor City Bowl bid in hand. Suddenly, and cruelly for NIU fans, Akron came back in the final seconds and pulled out a dramatic 31-30 win and NIU was left without a bowl after posting a 7-5 record. Novak’s battle cry in DeKalb is still “those who stay will be champions.” Those were Novak’s words to his team over a decade ago when he took over a morbid program. NIU is the real deal this year and will once again battle for the conference crown and give fits to the big boys Ohio State and Iowa. In the end, will NIU finally shake away the ghosts that have kept them from their first MAC title since 1983? That remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, this is a very talented team determined to finally close out the season with a MAC championship. That may happen if they beat Toledo again and if they can win their divisional road games.
Mark it down! The three game road stretch of Ball State, Miami and Western Michigan from September 30 through October 14 will determine if NIU makes it back to the MAC Championship this year. If the Huskies can win two of these three they will win the MAC West since they host both Toledo and Central Michigan in November. If they stumble during this three game road tour, NIU will not beat out Toledo for the divisional title.
Schedule Analysis For the most part, this is a favorable schedule outside of that three-game road series during the middle of the season. Non-conference lightweights of Indiana State and Temple offset the very difficult road games to Ohio State and Iowa. Crossover games are very manageable with Ohio and Buffalo at home and a road game to Miami. NIU hosts both Toledo and CMU, their biggest divisional challengers. Road games to improved Ball State and Western Michigan will be tricky.
Most Important Game Hosting Toledo on November 7. The Huskies ended years of frustration by beating Toledo for the first time since 1989, and the win at Toledo’s Glass Bowl was the first since 1972. This game will be for the MAC West title and most likely an immediate bowl bid from one of the MAC’s three secured bowl partners.