Northern Illinois Huskies
2014 Record: 11-3 (lost bowl game)
1 Burning Question: Can the Huskies Keep the Streak Alive?
Two programs have won at least 11 games in each of the last five seasons. One is Oregon – no surprise. The other is NIU.
Quietly, the boys from DeKalb have put together a Boise State-like run in the land of mid-majors. The Huskies have won three MAC titles during that five-year stretch and played in a BCS bowl game.
This season sets up well for the Huskies to strengthen their standing as the conference’s lead dogs. Head coach Rod Carey has a wealth of experience on the defensive ball, a proven commodity at quarterback in Drew Hare, and reasons for optimism at wideout. The schedule also sets up well, catching Western Michigan at home and missing Bowling Green and Akron from the MAC East.
Last season also showed some cracks in NIU’s foundation. The Huskies won plenty of games, but they needed plenty of favorable bounces to do so.
Extending that streak of 11-win seasons could be a tall order.
2 Key Stats to Pay Attention to
12 — The number of times NIU turned the ball over in 2014. That made the team one of the best in the country at taking care of the rock and led to a strong turnover margin of +12 on the season.
0.26 — The difference in yards gained and yards allowed per play for NIU last season. It’s rare to see a team that gives up nearly as many yards per snap on defense as it gains per offensive play go 11-3. Good thing the Huskies were so careful with the ball, because they didn’t have much margin for error.
3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season
2015 Full Schedule
9/5 — UNLV
9/12 — Murray State
9/19 — at Ohio State
9/26 — at Boston College
10/3 — at Central Michigan
10/10 — Ball State
10/17 — at Miami (OH)
10/24 — Eastern Michigan
11/3 — at Toledo
11/11 — at Buffalo
11/18 — Western Michigan
11/24 — Ohio Bobcats
Saturday, October 3, at Central Michigan
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 3-2
Last Year’s Result: L, 17-34
Why it matters: Revenge. The Chippewas blasted NIU a year ago in its only conference loss. The Huskies could be ripe for an upset again this season, as they will be playing their third consecutive road game. The two preceding contests: at Ohio State and at Boston College.
Tuesday, November 3, at Toledo
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 5-0
Last Year’s Result: W, 27-24
Why it matters: The Rockets have the look of a team ready to supplant NIU atop the MAC West. The Husky D will have its hands full trying to contain Toledo quarterback Phillip Ely and his complement of threats at the skill positions.
Wednesday, November 18, Western Michigan
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 5-0
Last Year’s Result: W, 31-21
4 Key Players
Levon Myers, OT – NIU is replacing a three-year starter and anchor of the offensive line in Tyler Loos. Myers looks like the pick to step in at tackle to replace the two-time All-MAC first-teamer. With two other veterans gone on the o-line, Myers has to be ready from the first snap of the year.
Tommylee Lewis, WR – The Huskies’ diminutive slot receiver and return specialist is back after missing all but two games last season. Lewis had 86 catches in 2013 and should give Drew Hare another weapon out wide.
Cameron Clinton-Earl, DE – With first-team all-conference pick Jason Meehan gone, Clinton-Earl steps into a starting role. Given what he has returning, defensive coordinator Jay Niemann just needs the senior defensive end to hold down the fort.
Jamaal Payton, LB – NIU’s depth at linebacker took a major hit in the spring with the indefinite suspension of Rasheen Lemon, the team’s second-leading tackler last year. Payton will be called on to fill in gaps in the unit.
5 Bold Predictions
5. Tommylee Lewis returns to form.
NIU clearly missed Lewis in the passing game last season. He will be Hare’s security blanket this fall.
4. The Huskies will find more balance on offense.
The Huskies leaned 65-35 toward the running game in ‘14. With three new starters on the offensive line, a new face at running back and Lewis’ return, NIU will take to the air noticeably more often this fall.
3. NIU will upset Boston College.
This trip to Chestnut Hill is nestled between conference games for BC — Florida State on the front end and Duke on the back. The Eagles are looking at a rebuilding year after sustaining big losses on offense. This just looks like a great spot for NIU to knock off a Power 5 foe.
2. NIU’s streak of division titles comes to an end.
The Huskies have played for the MAC crown for the last five years. That run comes to a close this fall. Between the ascendance of Toledo and WMU, NIU will drop a game to one of them, if not both.
Speaking of streaks coming to an end…
1. NIU falls short of 11 wins.
In light of NIU’s regression last season, it’s tough to see the Huskies going over 10 Ws. The schedule includes a guaranteed L to Ohio State, a trip to B.C., a trap game at Central Michigan, and the aforementioned showdowns with Toledo and WMU. Assuming NIU misses the conference championship game, that sounds about like 9-4 or 10-3 after the bowl game.