One of the most impressive program-building stories in college football over the past decade is one that has flown so far under the national radar that it’s been skimming the treetops.
I have to admit, as a boy who grew up with a Big Ten team in my own backyard, I wouldn’t have really noticed had I not moved to the Sauk Valley area a dozen years ago.
See, the thing about the Northern Illinois Huskies is that fanfare hasn’t been at the forefront of their building project. It’s been more about getting the most out of the players they can successfully recruit, mining the talent-rich Chicago suburbs and other strong high school football programs throughout the state to bring together a strong collection of team-first guys who played with chips on their shoulders.
Joe Novak started the trend, designing that blueprint and taking it to as high a level as possible. Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren have followed in his footsteps, realizing that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The result has been arguably the most consistent FBS program in the state of Illinois over the last decade.
Over the past few years, the focus of the offense has shifted. Gone are running backs like Thomas Hammock, Michael “The Burner” Turner and Garrett Wolfe. Now, it’s dual-threat quarterbacks like Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch who have helped the Huskies get to the next level: MAC titles and bowl-game victories.
But the thing that’s made NIU a conference contender year in and year out is the solidity in the trenches. The Huskies have built one of the most consistent offensive lines around and turned their defensive front into one of the best in the country, let alone the MAC.
As an Iowa Hawkeye fan, I feel I have maybe a greater appreciation than most outsiders for what Novak and Co. built at NIU. The Hawkeyes have gone from downtrodden to middle-of-the-Big-Ten-pack in the span of my lifetime, and coaches Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz have built the Iowa program in much the same way as it has been in DeKalb.
Somewhat ironically, it’s a 23-yard TD run by Iowa’s Damon Bullock that’s the sole reason why the Huskies aren’t undefeated in 2012. Had NIU held on to beat Iowa at Soldier Field back on Sept. 1, it would be getting talked up a bit by the national media as a potential BCS buster.
As it is, the Iowa loss seems to have taught the Huskies a lesson about fourth-quarter comebacks; after watching the Hawkeyes erase their late deficit, NIU has since pulled off the same trick three times.
Having been to a few NIU media days since starting my career at Sauk Valley Media in the spring of 2000, and watching local players from Rochelle’s Kursten Strothman (a starting linebacker back in the early 2000s) to Sterling’s Tyler Loos (the current starter at left tackle), I have to say that I’ve developed a bit of a soft spot for the Huskies.
And once again, it’s a team right in my own backyard.
No. 15 Texas vs. No. 13 Oklahoma
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Cowboys Stadium, Dallas
Line: Oklahoma by 3˝
What’s up: The Longhorns are looking to stay in the Big 12 race after last week’s loss to West Virginia; the Sooners are still doing the same after a loss to Kansas State a couple of weeks ago. Two hungry teams in a rivalry game ... need I say more?
My pick: Oklahoma 45-38
No. 6 Kansas State at Iowa State
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Jack Trice Stadium
Line: Kansas State by 6˝
What’s up: The Cyclones pulled off another Big 12 upset last week, snapping TCU’s home winning streak. That should be enough of a warning for the Wildcats and Heisman hopeful QB Collin Klein to not take them lightly.
My pick: Kansas St. 24-14
No. 17 Stanford at No. 7 Notre Dame
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Line: Notre Dame by 7
What’s up: The Cardinal can really grind out yards on the ground, and look more like a team from the Big Ten than the Pac-12 ... but the Irish and their strong D have had pretty good success against those types of teams this year.
My pick: Notre Dame 20-10
No. 5 West Virginia at Texas Tech
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jones AT&T Stadium
Line: West Virginia by 4
What’s up: The Mountaineers are making the most of their first season in the Big 12, putting up mind-boggling offensive numbers. The Red Raiders aren’t the same team they were when Mike Leach was calling the shots, but can still score with the best of them.
My pick: West Virginia 56-42
TCU at Baylor
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Floyd Casey Stadium
Line: Baylor by 7
What’s up: The Bears proved they can light up the scoreboard in an epic 70-63 loss to West Virginia ... but that also proved their defense can give up a lot of points as well. The Horned Frogs have to be licking their chops at this prospect, especially after being upset by Iowa State last week.
My pick: TCU 49-45
No. 3 South Carolina at No. 9 LSU
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Tiger Stadium
Line: LSU by 3
What’s up: The Tigers were all but knocked out of the national title picture by their loss to Florida on Saturday afternoon. With a .777 winning percentage in night games at Death Valley since 1960, this week LSU is looking to dash the Gamecocks’ championship dreams.
My pick: LSU 24-14