DeKALB – Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren refused to enter his first Mid-American Conference game blind.
Beyond film and practice, this week’s preparation was conversation. He talked to his assistants who are more experienced in the league, even called former Huskies coach Joe Novak. Everyone told him the same thing about Central Michigan.
“They were the standard, for a while,” Doeren said.
Emphasis on past tense.
The Chippewas won three of the past five MAC titles, in 2006, 2007 and 2009. Despite leading the conference in wins over the past decade, the Huskies haven’t been champions since 1983. Nobody wonders which side would like to swap histories.
But this Central Michigan isn’t that Central Michigan. The personnel is new. At one point against Michigan State last week, the Chippewas had seven freshmen defensive players on the field.
The most important change is on offense. Dan LeFevour hasn’t been CMU’s quarterback for two years. LeFevour, one of the best quarterbacks in conference history, helped propel Brian Kelly and Butch Jones to BCS coaching careers.
Junior Ryan Radcliff was supposed to pick up where LeFevour left off. But after leading the MAC with 3,358 passing yards, his tendency to be careless with the football has hurt this season. Radcliff has four touchdown passes, six interceptions and was pulled for backup A.J. Westendorp last week.
“I think their quarterback is a good player,” Doeren said of Radcliff. “I know he’s not off to the start he wants. I know last year he threw for a ton of yards, and he’s capable of that. He has a strong arm, and for whatever reason hasn’t started the way that he would’ve liked to.
“They’ve been pretty open about the situation they have at quarterback right now. ... That is a situation where – we hope – we’re going to do everything we can to keep them off balance from that standpoint.”
Even with a different cast, the reason Doeren’s assistants said CMU is a difficult place to play remains. Hardly anyone enjoys traveling to Mount Pleasant, Mich., a winding, 5 1/2-hour road trip from DeKalb. They then are greeted with a crowd that often approaches 30,000, in a horseshoe stadium meant to amplify noise.
Running backs coach Eddie Faulkner, who spent the past eight years at Ball State, has seen the atmosphere get rowdy plenty of times.
“I think it’s just the history,” Faulkner said. “There is a lot of love for football there amongst the students and the people in the area. It’s just always been somewhere hard to go. I can’t quite put a finger on it.
“You go to play them, and our visiting end is always down there by the student section, and they’re calling you names, throwing stuff at you. It’s just always been like that. Even before LeFevour got there, before they got good.”
Faulkner remembers one time in particular.
During a victory in 2008, Ball State receiver Louis Johnson caught a touchdown off a post route. As he ran toward the end zone, fans in the student section started throwing whatever they could grab.
“Snowballs were flying at him in the air as he was running,” Faulkner said. “He had to dodge them. So, obviously, that game stands out, but whenever you go there it’s going to be a hostile environment.”
Surely, Doeren has heard enough stories to know Saturday likely will be interesting. He expects a difficult road test, even if the Chippewas no longer are the MAC’s standard.
“I’m trying to do as much homework and get as much advice as I can on the road trip, the hotel, the environment, all those kind of things,” Doeren said. “Always the first time around, with everything you do, you’re going to learn some things that you’d do differently. The biggest thing we’re going to do is worry about us.
“That’s what we did last week. We focused on who we were and what we needed to do better. We’re going to try to take exactly what we did here, put it in a bus, drive it six hours, and do it again.”