CHAMPAIGN – To beat Northern Illinois, stop Chad Spann. At least that’s been the strategy of Huskies’ opponents the last two weeks.
Spann, who rushed for 1,038 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, has been held to 55 yards on his last 29 carries, including a 15-yard performance on 13 carries during Saturday’s 28-22 loss at Illinois.
But for the second straight week, NIU junior quarterback Chandler Harnish exploited a defense caught with its eyes focused on the tailback standing three yards behind him in the NIU pistol offense.
Harnish accounted for 83.3 percent of the Huskies’ offense against the Illini, passing for 208 yards and rushing for a team-high 117 yards. Harnish ran for a career-high 178 yards and passed for 146 yards during a week 2 win over North Dakota, a team that focused on limiting Spann following his early 79-yard touchdown run.
“It’s tough when they take away Chad, but at the same time (Harnish) had over 100 yards (against Illinois),” NIU offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “It’s hard to take all of them away. That’s the great thing about being in the shotgun and being in the pistol and doing those things is if you have a kid at quarterbacks that’s a weapon, that’s pretty awesome. Chandler’s proved he’s a weapon.”
"The game dictates what you can and can't do,” said Harnish, who started the 20th game of his NIU career on Saturday, “but I felt like we ran a lot of the plays that we had prepared during the week, and for the most part, they were pretty successful.”
Harnish, who ran for a touchdown and passed for a score, also is regaining a rapport with his wide receivers after backing up DeMarcus Grady for the season opener and most of training camp. Harnish, who missed most of spring practice with a knee injury, improved his completion rate from 56 percent in week 2 to 76 percent on Saturday.
Huskies’ No. 1 receiver Landon Cox, who had just one catch for zero yards through two weeks, finally made an impact with six receptions for 74 yards against the Illini. Harnish also hit starter Nathan Palmer on a post route for a 42-yard gain, the Huskies’ longest completion of the season, to set up a Spann first-quarter touchdown leap.
“I think that’s what happens when he gets in there and everybody knows (Harnish will start),” Limegrover said. “I think the last two weeks, Chandler has cemented what he’s going to bring to the table.”
Though, Harnish wasn’t flawless on Saturday.
The quarterback fumbled on the Illinois 30-yard line when he took a hard hit making a spin move in attempt to gain extra yards following a 15-yard rush. NIU coach Jerry Kill said the quarterback ran too upright on the play.
“I think there’s one play he’d like to have back in this football game, but me and him are adults and we understand each other, but he got better,” Kill said. “He just needs to keep getting better. We’re very pleased with the progress he’s making for our football team, and I think our football team is excited about that.”
The NIU offense still will hitch its ride to Spann this season, despite the tailback’s recent struggles to find running room. But the Huskies are happy to know they have a quarterback capable of taking the wheel.
“When your quarterback’s a threat, it’s a totally different world,” Limegrover said. “We realize that. Not that we want to run Chandler into the ground, but when they’re going to take away A, you got to be willing to go to B, and that’s what we’re doing right now is getting a little more balance.”