I recently caught up with Jeremy Werner, the Northern Illinois beat writer for the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Ill., to ask him a few questions about Tuesday's MAC West showdown between the Rockets and Huskies.
First things first, how is Northern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill, who had a bit of a health scare earlier in the season, doing?
Well, the NIU coach has worked his normal 15-hour days since the day he was released from the hospital almost a month and a half ago. He doesn’t like to talk about his health much but he’s appeared healthy since he was released from a five-day hospitalization following complications after having his gallbladder removed on Sept. 3. His health hasn’t impacted the team since he returned to the sidelines for a Sept. 18 loss at Illinois.
Northern Illinois started off the season slow, losing two of its first three games. What's been the difference during the Huskies' current six-game winning streak?
The easy answer is competition. Iowa State and Illinois are the two best teams NIU has played all season. But against ISU, the Huskies started DeMarcus Grady at quarterback instead of Chandler Harnish. After a three-interception performance, Grady was moved to No. 3 on the depth chart, while Harnish is 7-1 as the starter and possibly a fumble away from leading NIU to an upset at Illinois. But I think the defense always gets overlooked. Through five MAC games, they’ve given up a combined 14 points in the second half.
Chandler Harnish and Chad Spann seem to be the two main catalysts for the NIU offense. From your perspective, is there a better QB-RB tandem right now in the MAC?
No question. If Western Michigan quarterback Alex Carder had a better running back or Temple running back Bernard Pierce had a better quarterback, there might be an argument. There may be more talented running backs in the league, but Spann just wears opponents out. He doesn’t go down easily and always earns second-effort yards before he breaks a big one. Harnish has been the surprise of the season. He’s efficient in both the run and pass game and is more confident than he’s ever been.
The Huskies allow just 18.7 points per game, second fewest in the MAC this season. What are primary reasons for the defense's success?
I call them a “no-name” defense. There might not be an All-MAC player in the bunch, but I think that’s NIU’s strength. You’ll see constant commotion on the Huskies sideline on Tuesday as they continually rotate players in and out. About 24 defenders receive significant playing time, including 11 defensive linemen. That keeps NIU fresher than their opponents, which has paid off in the second half.
What are you expecting the atmosphere to be like in Huskie Stadium for Tuesday night's game?
The last big home game was Oct. 9 against Temple. There was an announced attendance of 14,011, but I hear there was about 9,000 actually in the stands. The crowds came back for homecoming against Buffalo and the win over Central Michigan. With a bid to the MAC Championship on the line and all the hype around this game – NIU is holding a “Black Out” and encouraging fans to wear black – I expect the crowd to show up. The 6 p.m. start is favorable to students who have shown they don’t like waking up at the crack of dawn at 11 a.m. for games. But it’ll be interesting to see if the non-students have as strong of a showing after having to work a full Tuesday. This is the biggest regular season game at NIU in probably five years so anything less than 20,000 would be disappointing.
And finally, your prediction(s) for the game....
It’s become really hard to pick against NIU. And after they finally won a close game against Western Michigan, it’s even harder. I think Toledo poses some problems with their speed and more balanced offensive attack. Both teams have won the turnover battle this season, and I expect takeaways to play a big role. I give NIU the edge because they are playing a veteran quarterback at home.
NIU 31, Toledo 28.