Created:Saturday, January 2, 2010 6:15 p.m.CDT

VIEWS: South Florida just better

Members of the NIU defense swarm South Florida running back Mike Ford (left, 4) during Saturday's 27-3 loss to the Bulls in the International Bowl. (Scott Walstrom – NIU Media Services)

TORONTO – They're not consistent enough. They're not strong enough. They're not fast enough. They're not deep enough. They're not talented enough.

That could be written about any Mid-American Conference team in a bowl lately, at least the past 14, all losses for the MAC. The utter futility of the conference in bowls is another topic for another day, like July's MAC media day in Detroit. Today, though, it's written about Northern Illinois.

For a half at Saturday's International Bowl, you could say NIU was there. If you'll excuse the wording, NIU went punch-for-punch with Jim Leavitt's South Florida Bulls, an athletically superior team, for 30 minutes.

It was a remarkable defensive performance made by a mix of young and experienced defensive athletes for NIU and an offense that at its best couldn't sustain a handful of good plays and at its worst prompted a few Canadians in the press box to wonder aloud if Americans knew how to play football.

The impressive plays – Alan Baxter and Jordan Delegal meeting at quarterback B.J. Daniels' head, Cory Hanson's consistent play, Sean Progar's sack, Nate Palmer and Martel Moore's routes – showed you how far NIU has come.

The rest, including South Florida running back Mike Ford's 104-yard third quarter, showed you how far the Huskies have to go to beat a team like the Bulls. Purdue, South Florida is not.

"We're still not strong enough," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said afterward. "We have to get stronger in order to be able to compete for 13, 14 games. It's the one thing that we've been here two years, and you're not going to improve in strength enough unless you do it illegally.

"We've got the kids. I think they're eating right. I think they're doing all of that stuff. I just think they need another good six months in the weight room and it will make a hell of a difference, from tackling, to getting off of blocks, to all of that."

The last part of Claeys' statement is exactly what South Florida was able to do in the second half against an NIU defense that played very well but was on the field too often and then started making the mistakes that come with fatigue.

Athletes like the Bulls know how and when to take immediate advantage of that, and they did. Those are the same athletes NIU is trying to go after in recruiting, and with good reason.

The first question asked of wide receivers coach/recruiting coordinator P.J. Fleck after the game was if Saturday was an example of why the Huskies recruit kids from South Florida's neck of the woods. His response? "No question."

"I don't want to say we were physically outmatched, but you watch the film, you watch their speed, you watch their ends, you look at the size of their players, the size of our players," he said. "And we're getting there. We've got some players.

"We've got some guys that are starting to look like them, we're getting some kids that are starting to run like them. But they are some great, great athletes. You look at their roster and 98 out of 110 are from Florida. They fly around now and those are the kids we're trying to get after and we feel like we can compete in recruiting. We'll see what happens."

It could go a long way in closing that gap NIU saw in multiple areas in the second half.

• John Sahly is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. He can be reached at

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