Northern Illinois Huskies (2000: 6-5)
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Coach and programIt’s been a long wait for fans in DeKalb, but the patience shown by folks in the stands and the Northern Illinois administration began to pay off in 2000.
Last season, the first winning record of coach Joe Novak’s regime followed the first winning league record (1999). And now the Huskies look for the first back-to-back years over .500 since 1990.
But hold on just a second. Going into a sixth season, Novak experienced the sort of success a rebounding program should in years four and five. But it happened on the backs of a lot of seniors.
Massive 6-9 tackle Ryan Diem heads to the pros, a fourth-round NFL draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts. He was the symbol of what the Huskies have accomplished on offense the last few years. Not only was he bigger and stronger than anyone he faced across the line of scrimmage, he was meaner and didn’t quit even when his man was on the ground.
Along with guard Kyle Jakubek and center McAllister Collins, Diem leaves a giant gap on the NIU line that powered the No. 12 rushing (228 yards per game) and scoring offenses (37.2 points per game) in the nation. He and Collins were two of eight Huskies to earn All-MAC honors from the league’s coaches.
The Huskies again showed themselves capable of putting up huge numbers on offense, but could not yet handle the very elite teams -- Toledo and Western Michigan -- of the MAC West. Eliminate those two games and NIU outscored the opposition, 363-190, for the year.
The Huskies played better against Toledo, but were knocked off track with an injury to star tailback Thomas Hammock.
“We haven’t really competed yet with those top teams, but now we should be as good as anybody,’’ Novak said. “It was hard early, hard to take the losing. It was hard to walk in every week and take it when we started here.’’
Northern may have turned the corner last fall, as new school records were set on offense in points, touchdowns, total yards and first downs. If the Huskies can stop anybody at all, that firepower will keep them in their share of games.
OffenseSenior Chris Finlen (6-3, 205) is the ringmaster who must balance the passing element with one of the nation’s best running games. He was the first Huskie elected team captain since the Franklin Roosevelt administration, and has appeared in 30 games en route to being second in NIU’s all-time passing yards category with 4,515.
Finlen completed his passes at a 57 percent clip for 11 touchdowns and 1,857 yards. He may have more to do if NIU shows more of the one-back look it worked on in the spring.
Northern had superlatives by passers, receivers and runners in 2000. But the last group was the key, with a pair of rushers who combined for more than 2,000 yards and 23 touchdowns.
The better numbers belong to Hammock (5-10, 218), a junior who did his damage in just nine games (1,083 yards, 16 touchdowns) before getting dinged against Toledo. But even if his ankle is back to top form, the challenge from sophomore Michael Turner (6-0, 219) may make who starts irrelevant as these guys have to share time at tailback. Turner added 983 yards and seven touchdowns in relief of Hammock and is actually more of a breakaway threat in the opinion of his coaches.
Tight end will have to pick up some of the slack with the loss of nearly half the teams’ catches. Those left with the NFL draft and star flanker Justin McCareins, a fourth-round pick of the Tennessee Titans. McCareins was the league’s special teams player of the year with a 19.1-yard average returning punts. Then there were his 66 receptions for 1,168 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Defense and special teamsHalf the line starters come from the successful parochial school program at Wahlert High School in Dubuque, Iowa. Senior Trent Clemen (6-3, 245) is a three-year starter who led the front in tackles (54) and pass deflections (six); junior prep teammate Eric Didesch (6-5, 278) plays over the center from his slot at nose guard and started seven times last fall.
The pick of the linebacker litter is one of the best juniors in the league, weak-side linebacker Larry Williams (6-0, 236). Strong enough to take on blockers but fast enough to play in space on the weak side, Johnson was a first team All-MAC selection by the league’s coaches.
Williams has 181 tackles in 21 career starts and led the team last year in tackles for loss (13) and sacks (four).
Sophomore strong safety Akil Grant (5-10, 188) had one of four punt blocks in the group last year and notched 16 stops in 11 games. He is a former prep linebacker and Novak thinks he is the guy who will blossom.
Junior Jimmy Erwin (6-2, 215) managed only about 38 yards per punt last fall, with a net of just more than 30. Novak needs him to be deeper and more consistent, though he doesn’t have many other options.
Bottom lineNorthern gave Novak an extension to 2005 and he continued his team’s climb toward winning last year. But the success in 1999 and 2000 happened on the backs of too many guys who had to play their football in just four consecutive seasons. Novak is ready for the next step up where redshirting is the key to the future.
But redshirting and building from within means a possible spinning of wheels for a season or two. This is a very young team, with great skill guys and a lot of untested size in the trenches on offense. Things won’t be so easy for the tailbacks this fall, but the glimpses of what’s to come on both sides of the ball should keep the fans content with a mark about one game above .500