DeKALB – There was some debate over who mentioned it, but nobody doubted its validity.
In a team meeting last week, not long after Northern Illinois loss at Central Michigan, the conversation turned to reaching the Mid-American Conference championship game. In a West Division loaded at the top with plenty of depth, NIU coach Dave Doeren knows two losses probably will be too many.
"One of the coaches said it in there – I can't remember who it was – but you're really in the playoffs," Doeren said. "If you want to get to Detroit, you're in the playoffs right now."
NIU hosts Kent State at 2:30 p.m. today at Huskie Stadium. Consider this the opening round.
The Golden Flashes have the nation's worst offense, ranked last of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring (12.4 points per game) and yards (191.2). Their 1-4 record places them near the bottom of the weaker East Division.
But after a 2-3 start to the season – a disappointment few anticipated – Doeren isn't taking anybody lightly.
"I think if we go out [today] and play against Kent State instead of playing against NIU, we have a great chance of winning," Doeren said. "What I mean by that is just catching the ball when it's thrown there, executing the play call to our best ability, not having a mistake in reading a signal or a mistake in the terminology. Letting our ability take over as opposed to allowing someone to play with us.
"My focus is more on us not beating us, as opposed to us beating seven teams."
There has been too much of that lately for NIU's liking. Blown assignments, missed tackles, dropped passes, miscommunication, players compensating for a teammate – the list could go on.
That goes for the offense, too.
NIU's offense appears to be the opposite of its defense, leading the MAC in scoring and total offense. But nobody was satisfied last week, even after scoring more than 40 points for the fourth time in five games.
"The stats kind of lied to you," senior quarterback Chandler Harnish said. "We didn't score points when we should have. We scored 25 points in the fourth quarter, we didn't score early in the game. We didn't give our defense anything to work off of."
"Basically, I've been thinking about our mistakes, and the points we left off the board," junior receiver Martel Moore said. "I just moved onto Kent State right away. It's a seven-game stretch, and we've just got to take it one at a time now."
Today's success will be judged by winning, but something bigger seems to be at play. With a home game looming next week against Western Michigan – a team that has talked about winning the West as much as NIU – the meat of the Huskies schedule is almost here. With it comes a slate of West games with few easy weeks.
Kent State may not be in the hunt, but Doeren said his team has plenty of urgency against the Golden Flashes.
"This week I’m hoping you’re seeing what we’re talking about," Doeren said. "We’re going to do everything the same way. We’re not going to panic. I’m in this for the long haul. There’s a big picture here for our program that we’re building.
"Our players are very prideful guys about being Huskies. We want to go out on the field and make people proud about what we’re doing. We know we haven’t done that every week, and so we’ll continue to fight to make that happen.”
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Score touchdowns: Northern Illinois leads the Mid-American Conference with 37.2 points per game, a number that would be much higher if not for its seven-point dud against Wisconsin earlier this season. The Huskies defense is last in the 13-team conference in scoring, allowing 39.6 points per game. The lesson: Few games will be won this season kicking field goals.
2. Avoid turnovers: While it's difficult to conjure positives regarding Kent State, one easily stands out: the Golden Flashes defense creates turnovers. Kent State is second in the MAC with 13 takeaways this season. Turnovers haven't been a consistent problem for NIU, but last week's 17-0 hole at Central Michigan was greatly helped by a Chandler Harnish interception on the game's opening drive.
3. Third-down defense: Again, this one isn't going anywhere. Expect to see third down defense in this slot all season.
4. Tackling: This is a game NIU should win even if its doesn't tackle well. What about next week? Or the week after that? Beating Kent State isn't the only goal here. Building confidence and establishing the proper way to play the game are just as important.
5. Kickoffs: Expect there to be a lot of them for NIU, just as there have been for most of the season. Unlike many weeks, the Huskies defense clearly is more talented than the offense it will line up against today. If kickoff specialist Tyler Wedel and his coverage team force the Golden Flashes to drive the football a long way to score, NIU's defense should be fine.
– Ryan Wood, email@example.com