DeKALB – If only one of two football teams considers their relationship a rivalry, is it truly a rivalry?
Northern Illinois players insist Toledo is its true nemesis, even though the Rockets (6-3, 5-0 Mid-American Conference West) – who have won 29 of the 37 games all-time between the MAC foes – don't quite share those feelings for the Huskies (7-2, 5-0 MAC West).
"I have a strong dislike for Toledo," said senior defensive end Jake Coffman, voicing the feelings of many NIU fans.
"Our main rivalry is Bowling Green because of the long history," said Toledo junior running back Adonis Thomas, referring to the series that began in 1919 between foes 25 miles apart. "But NIU always tries to get after us."
The two can sort it out on the Huskie Stadium turf at 6 p.m. Tuesday when one team will claim sole possession of first place in the MAC West in front of an ESPN2 audience.
Toledo has owned the series, especially as of late, winning 14 of the past 16 meetings, including an 11-game winning streak from 1991-2004. NIU hasn't fared any better at home, losing 11 of 17 to Toledo at Huskie Stadium.
The Huskies' 31-17 loss in 2004 prevented NIU from clinching a MAC Championship game berth, while a 49-30 Toledo win ended the Huskies' bowl dreams in 2003.
Bill Baker, in his 31st year as the play-by-play voice of Northern Illinois football, has seen most of NIU's shortcomings against Toledo and says any thought of a rivalry between the schools only exists on one end.
"I'm sure we feel it's a rivalry," Baker said, "but they could (not) care less about us because they've handed it to us over the years."
A 38-7 win over Toledo in 2008 broke a six-game home losing streak to the Rockets. But the Huskies were nipped again last season when the Rockets blocked Mike Salerno's 42-yard field goal attempt with less than a minute left in a 20-19 loss.
"They seem to always get us," junior center Scott Wedige said. "It kind of puts a little more focus on them and gives us a little extra to go out and beat them."
NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish said former NIU coach Joe Novak, who won only one of 11 games against the Rockets from 1997-2007, preached contempt for the Rockets to his players.
"That stuck with us and we try to spread that with the younger guys in the team," Harnish said.
Third-year NIU coach Jerry Kill, who is 1-1 against Toledo, said he's received more e-mails and phone calls this week – including a call from former Huskie quarterback Josh Haldi – than any previous week this season because of NIU fans fiery feelings toward Toledo.
"You're darn right it's important to the Huskie nation," Kill said. "There's no doubt about that."
Toledo's longtime MAC rival is Bowling Green, a short drive south on Interstate 75. The schools compete for the Peace Pipe trophy, which has spent equal time between the teams' award cases during its 30-year history.
But without a clear proximate rival in the MAC – Ball State or Western Michigan are both more than 200 miles from DeKalb – NIU fans have slung scorn toward the foe who has ruined many seasons.
And the venom has spilled onto the field. Coffman and Thomas both confirmed there were less-than-cordial words exchanged between the Huskies and Rockets last year.
"They did some things last year up at their place that still churns my stomach a bit," Coffman said. "It definitely gets me ready to play. It's not going to be hard to get up to play Toledo, I can tell you that.
"The fans carry it with them. That's fine. They can pack the stands and have a good atmosphere for the game."