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2005 MAC Football Pigskin Preview

 

Northern Illinois Huskies


Quarterbacks

The Huskies must replace Josh Haldi, one of the schoolís best QBs. Haldi finished his NIU career with a 25-8 career won-lost record as a three-year starter and a 9-3 mark last season. He produced over 6,000 career passing yards and 55 TDs with just 19 INTs. This year it looks to be Phil Horvath as the starter entering the fall campaign. He is the only prospect with any experience and led NIU to a 34-17 victory over Bowling Green last season. He completed 72 passes for 954 yards and six touchdowns when starter Josh Haldi was hurt at various times last year. Horvath must get rid of the INT bug though, throwing seven in 2004. There are some very talented backups in Zach Ullrich, Britt Davis and Dan Nicholson. Ullrich (6-0, 190) saw limited duty in 2004, appearing in three games for a total of 16 snaps, connecting on 1-of-2 passes for eight yards. Davis (6-3, 195) is a tremendous athlete with terrific speed while the coaching staff is excited about Nicholsonís (6-2, 190) arm strength.

 

Running Backs

NIU has had a 1st team All-MAC tailback for five consecutive seasons. Given the talent returning this season, pencil in six. The Huskies boast the nation's most productive returning 1-2 rushing combinations in Garrett Wolfe and A.J. Harris. Not only did NIU run the ball 550 times for 2,858 yards, but they lost one fumble in 2004! Garrett Wolfe may be small at 5-foot 7 and 174-pounds, but he is a home-run hitter with a nose for the goal line. Last season he rushed for 1,656 yards and 18 touchdowns averaging 6.5 yards per carry whiled adding three TD receptions. He is very powerful able to finish off runs with "physicality." Also he is a real workhorse displayed by seven straight 100-yard days and a 43-carry, 325-yard, two TD performance against Eastern Michigan. A.J. Harris is as good a backup as there is in college football. With 4.45/40 speed and a 225-pound frame, Harris is the "big back" and he rushed for over 800 yards and four TDs in 2004. He had a big game in the SVB last season ripping through the tough Troy defense for 119 second half yards and a touchdown. Adrian Davis is a terrific third option, finished third on the team in í04 with 159 rushing yards with three TDs. In typical Joe Novak form, there is terrific talent and depth across this entire rushing unit.

 

Receivers/Tight Ends

NIU graduated two tremendous playmakers in 1st Team All-MAC TE Brad Cieslak (31 catches for 384 yards and three TDs) and 2nd Team All-MAC WR Dan Sheldon (40 catches for 936 yards and nine TDs). Sam Hurd looks to the #1 target this fall. Hurd caught 27 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns last season and is very athletic. He is also a very good blocker, a must in a Joe Novak team. Shatone Powers is an experienced receiver with good hands, he caught 19 passes for 248 yards and four TDs last year. Jarret Carter has good size at 6-2 205-pounds while Marcus Perez and Matt Simon bring tremendous speed to the perimeter. TE Jake Nordin moves into the starting role after catching 14 passes for 122 yards. He has great size at 255-pounds and thus far has been mostly a run blocker. Pat Raleigh is his backup and has good hands.

Offensive Linemen

Northernís offense ranked 13th in the country in scoring offense and 14th in total offense due to their excellent offensive line that paved the way for nearly 240-yards per game on the ground. Three starters return from that bulldozing unit; Doug Free, Ben Lueck and Brian Van Acker. Each has all-conference abilities with possible NFL futures. Van Acker is receiving some preseason all-American attention. Lueck is a 6th year senior with previous all-conference accolades. Jake Ebenhoch and Matt Rogers are slated to man the right side of the line. The starters average 6-4 293-pounds per man while the redshirt and true freshmen prospects waiting in the wings average 6-5 285 per man.

 

Defensive Linemen

The defensive line is led by the DE starters of Ken West and Quince Holman. West had 39 tackles with 8 QB sacks while Homan added 34 tackles and 1 QB sack. Each possesses 4.65/40 speed. Larry English is a quality backup who looks to be fully recovered from ankle problems. The interior D-line have good size in Eric Pittman (6-2, 275), Adam Schroeder (6-4, 277), Martin Wilson (6-1, 285) and Brad Benson (6-3, 255). DE Robert Oruche DT Zack Holycross will add depth if they can recover from off-season surgeries. NIU gave up 153-yards per game on the ground last year ranking 65th nationally, so this group can do better.

 

Linebackers

Javan Lee leads a LB corps that graduated two splendid players in Brian Atkinson and Jason Hawkins. Lee produced the programís most single-season tackles for loss (16 for 51 yards) since defensive end C. J. Rose (17 for 63 yards) in 1993. Lee earned all conference honors and had a big game against Troy in the SVB. Lee is one of the leagueís top LBs. Jason Hutton is a proven player at MLB while former RB prospect TJ Griffin is receiving rave reviews from the coaching staff. This is a very athletic group with good speed and size. Shendrick Mossman, Bob McLearen & Tim McCarthy are slated as backups. This entire group of six are in the 6-1 220-230 pound range. True freshmen Phil Brown and Zach Larsen may be in the mix as well this fall.

 

Defensive Backs

SS Ray Smith put up some serious stats in í04. The 6-2, 185-pound Smith recorded 114 tackles, a team-high 10 pass deflections, three fumble-cause hits, two pass interceptions including a 68-yard touchdown. Flat out, he just makes plays. At the corners are "twins," Adriel and Alvah Hansbro. Both are in the 5-10, 175-pound range and Adriel, has 14 career starts with two interceptions. Alvah has one career start and some game experience. Dustin Utschig and Mark Reiter are the free safeties. Utsching has a blocked punt in the SVB to his credit while Reiter brings more size to the position. Other than Andre Morris, there is limited upper classmen depth. NIU brought in seven DBs in their recent recruiting class to provide immediate help and depth. Melvin Rice is the prize recruit who will likely play as a true freshman. Others may make the two-deep line up by September.

 

Special Teams

Sophomore PK Chris Nendick was the best frosh kicker in Huskie history and was named Honorable Mention All-MAC and 2nd Team Frosh All-America by The Sporting News. He finished #9 in DI-A kick-scoring and #22 overall (8.3 ppg.). His 99 kick-scoring points marked the second-best single-season total behind all-time leader Steve Azar in 2003. Punter Andy Dittbenner struggled last season as NIUís punting game was dead last in the MAC at just 31-yards per kick. On punt returns, the Huskies will miss the excitement of Dan Sheldon who set seven school punt return records during his tenure. Marcus Perez is scheduled to be his replacement.

 

Final Thoughts

Each year I rave about the job Coach Joe Novak has done with Northern Illinois and each year he proves me right with a solid team built on a strong running game that makes few mistakes. This yearís team will be no different. NIU replaces their QB, but there are good players in line who will produce. NIU has an outstanding group of RB prospects and a very solid O-line, which stays the same. Some big-time players graduated from the receiving corps, but there is a lot of talent still there. Defensively, NIU usually ranks in the middle of the MAC with certain areas excelling so that will stay the same. NIUís biggest mountain to climb though is called "Mount Toledo." They have not beaten the Rockets since 1989 and have not won at Toledo, where they play UT this season, since 1972 when Richard Nixon was president. NIU will once again field a terrific team that will win between seven to nine games. Sadly for the Huskie faithful, they will most likely lose to Michigan and to Toledo, thus another 2nd place finish in the MAC west. There is an outside chance for a second consecutive bowl appearance for NIU in 2005.

 

Mark it down!

NIU will beat Miami (O) at home lose to Toledo on the road. The Huskies should be playing great football just prior to the home date against the RedHawks and win that game against Novakís alma mater. NIU has not won at Toledo since 1972.

Schedule

@ Michigan - LOSS

@ Northwestern - LOSS

vs. Tennessee Tech - WIN

@ Akron - WIN

vs. Miami (Wed.) - WIN

vs. Eastern Michigan - WIN

@ Kent State - WIN

vs. Ball State - WIN

@ Central Michigan - WIN

@ Toledo (Wed.) - LOSS

vs. Western Michigan (Tues.) - WIN

 

8-3 Overall, 7-1 MAC

 

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