Created:Monday, October 31, 2011 5:30 a.m.CDT
Updated:Monday, October 31, 2011 8:20 a.m.CDT

Huskies rolling with 'playoff' mentality

Buffalo defender Rudy Johnson (8) is beat as Northern Illinois receiver Nathan Palmer makes a catch in first half on Oct. 22 UB Stadium. (Photo by John Hickey – Buffalo News)

DeKALB – They can’t remember one turning point, if only one existed. Northern Illinois football coach Dave Doeren said it was gradual, a matter of young players gaining experience, figuring out how to play the college game.

His team repeated the refrain.

“You know, there were a few meetings early on that we had. I can’t really decipher which one,” senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller said. “But it was just talking about guys stepping up, and the younger players at certain positions. I wouldn’t say there was one meeting. I just think it’s, as time has gone on game by game, people are just getting better and better and more comfortable in their spots.

“So it wasn’t just a day where I can say, ‘OK, everything started to click.’ ”

Four weeks ago, the season was left for dead, a crushing loss at Central Michigan seeming to erase any chance for NIU to reach its goals. The Huskies traveling to Toledo for a 6 p.m. kickoff Tuesday with a chance to grab control of the Mid-American Conference West seemed unlikely.

But NIU branded the remainder of its season as the “playoffs.” Things clicked. And it enters the season’s biggest week with a three-game winning streak.

Doeren was surprised, but not by his team’s turnaround.

“I kind of expected it earlier,” Doeren said.

In the season’s opening weeks, Doeren said his team still was reeling from the personnel hits it took in the spring, learning how to play without linebackers Devon Butler, Tyrone Clark and safety Tracy Wilson. Then there were triple-option opponents Army and Cal Poly, weeks that ended with wins but, Doeren believes, ultimately led to setbacks with the defense’s development.

Doeren didn’t expect that. As a first-time head coach, he had nothing to base those situations off of – the toll it took on a team, how long the recovery process, which approach was best. He does know how his team turned around its season.

After losing to Central Michigan, Doeren said there was no other option.

“We felt since our Central game we’ve kind of been in that [must-win] seat the whole time. We know where we’re at,” Doeren said. “Obviously, Toledo’s not. They could lose to us and still be in position where things could go their way. But we kind of felt like we’re a one-week-at-a-time playoff team since that game. We’ve just got to continue to keep focus.”

That focus doesn’t stop after this week. After Toledo, NIU closes its season with three opponents – Bowling Green, Ball State and Eastern Michigan – that have a combined 14-12 record. But, if the Huskies beat the Rockets, they’ll enter those games in optimal position in the West race.

That’s what makes this feel bigger, even if it’s really no different than the past three weeks.

“I don’t think I’d have it any other way – a big-time game, the winner is in the driver’s seat, and it’s against our rivals,” Schiller said. “It doesn’t really get much bigger than that. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s just another game. We’ve got to treat it like that. But it’s hard not to think about what will happen after the game and what the win will do for us.

“This is a must-win game for us. I’m not looking too far into the fact that we have to win this game if we want to control our destiny, and our destiny is to win the MAC championship and go to a good bowl game.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?