SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  Northern Illinois Huskies

 
The Lowdown
Coach: Joe Novak (8th year, 28-50)
2002 record: 8-4
MAC finish: T-1st (West)
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 200.8 ypg
(6th in MAC, 27th in nation)
Pass: 175.4 ypg (11th, 90th)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 131.8 ypg (1st, 38th)
Pass: 254.9 ypg (12th, 103rd)
Projected Starters
Offense (6 returning starters in bold)
SE  82  P.J. Fleck  Sr. 
FL   5   Dan Sheldon   Jr.  
LT  62  Doug Free  Fr. 
LG  77  Mark Orszula  Jr. 
C   63   Todd Ghilani   Sr.  
RG  65  Brian Van Acker  So. 
RT   66   Jake Verstraete   Jr.  
TE   89   Brad Cieslak   Jr.  
HB  87  Aaron Anderson  Jr. 
QB   10   Josh Haldi   So.  
TB   32   Michael Turner   Sr.  
Defense (6)
DE   99   Jason Frank   Sr.  
DT  90  Martin Wilson  Jr. 
NT  61  Leonard Cooksey  Sr. 
DE   56   Travis Moore   Jr.  
SLB   38   Brian Atkinson   Jr.  
MLB   45   Nick Duffy   Sr.  
WLB  50  Kurston Strothman  Jr. 
CB   18   Randee Drew   Sr.  
CB  15  Gerard Taylor  Sr. 
SS   21   Akil Grant   Sr.  
FS  Lionel Hickenbottom  Jr. 
Special Teams
13  Steve Azar  Sr. 
92  Anthony Gallagher  Sr. 
KR  32  Michael Turner  Sr. 
PR  Dan Sheldon  Jr. 
2003 Schedule
Aug. 30  Maryland 
Sept. 6  Tennesee Tech 
Sept. 20  at Alabama 
Sept. 27  Iowa State 
Oct. 4  Ohio 
Oct. 11  at Central Michigan 
Oct. 18  Western Michigan 
Oct. 25  at Bowling Green 
Nov. 1  Ball State 
Nov. 8  at Buffalo 
Nov. 15  at Toledo 
Nov. 22  Eastern Michigan 
The 2002 season went quite well for Northern Illinois, which overcame a 1-3 start with seven consecutive conference victories and a share of the MAC West title for the second consecutive season. Only a 33-30 loss to Toledo in the final week prevented NIU from reaching its first MAC championship game. All this success came despite some significant injuries.

Coach Joe Novak welcomes back the core of last year's 8-4 squad, including 12 starters and two former starters who missed the majority of last season due to injuries. "We all feel this is our best football team coming up potentially," the eighth-year coach said. "This is the most excited that we've been."

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

Northern Illinois returns all of the key ingredients of a potent offensive unit that averaged 31.3 points per game. Quarterback Josh Haldi overcame a lack of experience to rank 27th in the nation in passing efficiency and produce the best sophomore passing season in school history.

Senior tailback Michael Turner took over the starting duties in the second game of the season after two-time 1,000-yard rusher Thomas Hammock was diagnosed with a heart ailment that ended his career. Turner's combination of size and speed led to a MAC single-season rushing mark of 1,915 yards and a school-best 2,284 all-purpose yards. Turner had eight rushes of 31 yards or longer and finished the season ranked second in the nation in rushing.

The receiving corps is young, talented and deep. Dan Sheldon and Sam Hurd played well in leading roles after P.J. Fleck went down with a season-ending hamstring injury. Fleck was granted a medical redshirt and returns for his fifth season.

Second-team All-MAC center Todd Ghilani and tackle Jake VerStraete will form the foundation of a young line that must replace three starters.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

Northern Illinois must shore up some holes if it wants to contend for a conference championship. The defense lost five starters, but injuries to several players last season allowed numerous reserves to receive quality playing time.

The loss of first-team All-MAC linebacker Larry Williams will hurt, but Nick Duffy, Brian Atkinson and Kursten Strothman will form a solid unit. NIU's 4-3 defense will have speed on the ends with Jason Frank and Travis Moore.

The secondary looks strong with nine returning lettermen at the four spots. The graduation of two-time all-conference cornerback Vince Thompson will be offset by the return of hard-hitting free safety Lionel Hickenbottom, who played in only one game last season. Cornerback Randee Drew's seven interceptions were the most at NIU since 1965. Strong safety Akil Grant tied for 18th in the nation with 138 tackles. Gerald Taylor will take over Thompson's spot at right corner.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Sheldon came out of nowhere to earn the 2002 MAC Special Teams Player of the Year award. He led the country with a 22.7 yards-per-return average and returned three punts for touchdowns. Kicker Steve Azar could become the first four-time all-conference performer in school history.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

Novak's squad lost three of its games by a combined nine points last season. The Huskies reached new heights last season despite enduring an onslaught of injuries. Expectations will be very high, and Northern Illinois will be tested early with a non-conference slate that includes Maryland, Iowa State and Alabama. If the Huskies can pull off an upset or two and remain healthy, the conference schedule might not look as imposing. The Huskies are hungry to prove last season was no fluke, and with three straight winning seasons under their belt, the future looks bright. The offense will carry the team, but the defense must be more consistent and reduce the number of big plays. The special teams will be among the best in the country.

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