Coach: Joe Novak (10th season, 47¬55) 2004 record: 9-3 (Beat Troy in Silicon Valley Bowl) MAC finish: 7-1 (2nd West) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 11th (238.2 ypg) Passing: 73rd (200.6 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 65th (153.1 ypg) Passing: 70th (223.0 ypg)
at Kent State
at Central Michigan
Depth Chart: Offense
7 returning starters in red
Brian Van Acker
Depth Chart: Defense
6 returning starters in red
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Veteran Northern Illinois coach Joe Novak has plenty to be happy about. The Huskies have won 19 games over the past two seasons, and last December, they won their first bowl game in 21 years. This year, the Huskies return the nation's top rushing duo, and the program will be showcased on national television twice. In addition, the school recently announced plans in the spring for a $17 million practice/learning facility attached to the football field. All this sits well with Novak, but he maintains there is still much to accomplish at NIU.
"We're on the right track, and we've had tremendous success the last few years," Novak said. "But we still haven't accomplished our number one goal of winning the Mid-American Conference championship"
The Huskies welcome back 93 percent of last year's 2,858 rushing yards. The bulk of the load belongs to Garrett Wolfe and A.J. Harris, the leading returning rushing duo in the country. Wolfe emerged from nowhere to rush for 1,656 yards and score 21 touchdowns. The 221-pound Harris gives the Huskies a blend of speed and power. He rushed for 120 yards in a rain-filled 34-21 win over Troy in the Silicon Valley Football Classic.
Junior quarterback Phil Horvath won't have an easy task replacing three-year starter Josh Haldi. The deep offensive line and influx of talented running backs should make Horvath's transition smoother. Senior wide receivers Sam Hurd and Shatone Powers need to maximize their potential to take the pressure off the running game.
Last season, the Huskies' defense allowed just 25.3 points per game, but the unit must rebuild a bit after losing five starters. The front four ranks as the deepest rotation in coach Joe Novak's 10-year tenure. Defensive end Ken West must stay healthy. West became the first NIU player in 21 years to notch three sacks in consecutive games.
The Huskies will need a strong season from senior weak-side linebacker Javan Lee. Injuries and a deep linebacking corps have stunted Lee's growth, but now it's his time to shine. Jason Hutton finally gets a chance to start at middle linebacker. The senior owns just one career start, but he recorded 13 tackles in a key overtime win at Ball State.
The secondary remains a concern following the departure of Lionel Hickenbottom and Rob Lee. Strong safety Ray Smith and cornerback Adriel Hansbro both were steady in their first season as starters. Alvah Hansbro, Adriel's twin brother, slides over to the left cornerback spot.
Kicker Chris Nendick had a stellar freshman season. He showed remarkable poise with a game-winning field goal as time expired at UCF. Sophomore Jason Baez and freshman Andy Dittbenner will compete for the open punting job. The graduation of punt returner Dan Sheldon can't be overlooked; Sheldon broke seven school return records. Marcus Perez will get the first opportunity to step in.
The offense has the ingredients to score points in bunches. Horvath follows the trend of smart, productive and quiet leaders at quarterback. The tailback tandem of Wolfe and Harris will give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares this season. Also, the continued progress of the wide receivers could prevent opposing teams from stacking the line.
Defensive coordinator Denny Doornbos enters his second year and must build the confidence of a young and inexperienced back seven. The secondary is vulnerable with two new starters. The early season focus will be surviving the non-conference slate, which opens with trips to Michigan and Northwestern. Two years ago, the Huskies beat three BCS teams but lost four all-conference players to injuries down the stretch.
The Huskies still haven't beaten Toledo since 1989 or won an outright MAC title in 21 years. The program is on the rise and set to take another step. This season, the difference between moving up or moving down might depend on injuries and the growth of a tenuous defense.