DeKALB – Pat Schiller said it was now or never. This was the "playoffs." Players talked about it all week. They knew there were no more second chances.
It was time for Northern Illinois defense to play like the unit it thought it could be, not what it had been.
"We knew we needed to come out and play well," said Schiller, NIU's senior middle linebacker. "We came into the locker room today, we had a team meeting before the game and we kind of just said, 'Hey, this is our time.' "
NIU's defense throttled Kent State, 40-10, on Saturday in front of 14,251 people at Huskie Stadium. The Huskies (3-3, 1-1 Mid-American Conference West) didn't allow an offensive touchdown, giving up three points until Kent State strong safety Luke Wollet returned running back Jamal Womble's fumble 36 yards for a touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
The Golden Flashes (1-5, 0-2 MAC East) entered as the nation's worst offense, last of 120 teams in scoring and total yards. They played like it, only gaining 70 yards on 61 plays and finishing 1 of 15 on third down.
"I don't care who you [play]," NIU coach Dave Doeren said. "If you hold someone to 70 yards, that's an impressive day.
"I think if you ask [the players], they've been waiting for it to happen. I think they know they're a good defense. I think we're young. Just been waiting for those guys to step up and be who they are."
The defense did everything Saturday it lacked in the first five games. Nothing was more important than playmaking.
The Huskies entered with just five takeaways this season, tied for the fewest of 13 MAC teams. They had three Saturday, starting with an interception defensive tackle Nabal Jefferson returned 25 yards for a touchdown on the Golden Flashes' first possession.
The play – a screen pass – was set up by defensive tackle Ron Newcomb's pressure on Kent State quarterback Spencer Keith.
"Ron probably thought he had one of his patented pass-rush moves there," Doeren said, smiling and drawing a laugh.
"I kept going toward the quarterback, which I actually wasn't supposed to do. But I kept going," Newcomb said. "I think I just forced him to throw a bad ball."
Pressure was a consistent theme.
The Huskies hadn't gotten to the quarterback much this season. They finished with seven sacks and forced Kent State coach Darrell Hazell to pull Keith in the first half in favor of backup Cedric McCloud. It was McCloud's first appearance as a college quarterback.
"The turnover early in the game was very critical, obviously," Hazell said. "We talked about it as a staff going into the game, if Spencer was struggling we were going to go with the second guy."
In the postgame news conference, Doeren and senior quarterback Chandler Harnish were joined by three defensive linemen – Newcomb, Jefferson and end Sean Progar – a rarity for any game.
Newcomb dismantled plays inside all day. The senior finished with a team-high eight tackles, 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Doeren said he was proud. Schiller was just thankful.
"It's unbelievable how easy it is to play when you have a great D-line in front of you," said Schiller, who finished with six tackles and one for loss. "The D-line showed how great they are today, and they made my job a hell of a lot easier."
With this win, the "playoffs" continue. That was the point Saturday. For NIU to return to Detroit – the site of December's MAC Championship Game – the next six weeks will be survive and advance.
One of the toughest obstacles along that path awaits with Western Michigan next Saturday. Against a quality opponent, that would appear to be a more important game. But Doeren stressed the need for his team to establish itself now.
"Every game is important. There's no one game that's more important than the next," Doeren said. "I just wanted our guys to play to the best of their ability. I think all of us were sick of knowing how good we are and not showing it.
"We know what we have to do. We need to do it. That was what today was."