Five straight MAC West titles and now several experts have them pegged to finish third in the division? Yeah, a Stephen A. Smith catchphrase felt like the most appropriate intro for this preview.
An increasingly common phenomenon in college and professional football is for a team’s 1-2 rushing punch to include its quarterback and running back, as opposed to two running backs. Very few teams, if any, have managed to pull this off better than Northern Illinois. Beginning with Chandler Harnish, who had almost 3,000 rushing yards in his prolific college career, the Huskies have featured a running quarterback for the last seven seasons, and 2015 should make it eight.
Drew Hare emerged as the starting quarterback after two guys ahead of him (Matt McIntosh and Anthony Maddie) struggled. Hare never looked back either, he threw 18 touchdown passes and only two picks and managed over 900 yards rushing. He may be called upon to contribute even more this season with the departure of TB Cameron Stingily.
Stingily’s replacement situation is unclear, but the most likely candidate is bruising tailback Joel Bouagnon. Keith Harris, Jr. also should provide some solid carries as the change-of-pace back. Regardless of who’s carrying the ball, they will likely be running behind All-MAC Center Andrew Ness. Ness is the unquestioned leader of the O-Line and will be one of the keys in the running game for 2015. He’s also got a potentially bright NFL future ahead of him at either center or guard. His efforts will be aided by returning LG Aidan Conlon, and three new faces.
One place the Huskies shouldn’t have any issues is at receiver. With Tommylee Lewis returning from injury, NIU should get back one of the top possession receivers in the conference. Lewis caught nearly 80% of his targets in 2013. Top home run threat Da’Ron Brown, but with the return of guys like Aregeros Turner, Juwan Brescacin, and Chad Beebe (plus North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay) the Huskies should have a plethora of solid receivers.
Paris Logan headlines the top secondary in the MAC entering 2015. Logan broke up 15 passes and picked off three a season ago, and he’s considered one of the top cover men in the conference both as a college star and an NFL prospect. He won’t be singlehandedly responsible for carrying the back end of the defense though as strong safety Marlon Moore returns after logging 74 tackles and 3.5 for loss in 2014. There are also four other CBs besides Logan with in-game experience on this roster.
Giving up big plays in the running game was a problem for NIU last season, but with playmakers like DE Perez Ford and LBs Boomer Mays and Rasheen Lemon back there’s reason to believe that will improve. Ford racked up 9 tackles for loss, 5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles in 2014 and Mays and Lemon chipped in a combined 127.5 tackles and 12 for loss.
Count me among the blasphemous picking against Northern Illinois. Despite probably improving on defense, and having a better receiving corps it just seems like it might be somebody else’s time. The Huskies have been good for the last five years, very good in fact, but fortune has also been on their side some too. At some point in time, that runs out. Other teams in the MAC West, specifically Toledo and Western Michigan have recruited well and should field more than formidable competition for NIU’s bid for six straight division titles. NIU also has a pair of tough road non-conference games against Ohio State and Boston College.
Credit Cover photo to Nam Y. Huh/AP Photo