DeKALB – This was the point in the conversation when honesty usually got tucked behind the company line, something bland to avoid stirring trouble.
Northern Illinois junior safety Tommy Davis knew it. He paused before going further. Problem was, when it came to Toledo, he couldn’t help himself.
“We don’t like them ... at all,” Davis said. “Ever since I got here, older guys said, ‘Toledo, man, that’s a good game.’ They’re a good team, and they’re a good opponent. But as far as having to like somebody ...”
Davis’ voice trailed off. He shook his head. It was refreshing.
The next day, quarterback Chandler Harnish took his turn.
“I don’t hate anybody,” Harnish said. “But you definitely feel more of a rivalry toward Toledo. You just want to beat them that much more. There’s not too much talk in between the two teams. We’re not like that, and I don’t think they are either.”
“I wouldn’t say hatred is the word,” senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller added. “It’s just a strong will to beat them.”
In recent history, the two teams have blown each other out, broken each other’s heart and ruined plenty of quality seasons. They’ll get another chance at 6 p.m. today, when NIU (5-3, 3-1 Mid-American Conference West) travels to the Glass Bowl in Toledo (5-3, 4-0 MAC West) for a game that might decide who advances to Detroit for the MAC championship game in December.
At this point, it hardly matters MAC East opponent Bowling Green is considered Toledo’s “true” rival. Few MAC rivalries are stationary. Most times, they change depending on who’s good at the time. And for much of the past decade, NIU and Toledo entered seasons knowing it had to beat the other to accomplish its goals.
“I think it was a huge game with coach [Joe] Novak’s seasons because really whoever won that game a lot of years was in the driver’s seat,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “So that makes it a bigger game, and that’s why it’s a big game this time. Both of the teams are in a position where they can be in the front seat going into the last three games for our side of the league.”
The recent history has stuck with both teams. NIU still seethes over its 70-21 loss at Toledo in 2007, when the Rockets ran the score up in the second half. It still regrets its 20-19 loss in 2009, when Toledo blocked a potential game-winning field goal with 37 seconds left the last time the Huskies were in the Glass Bowl.
Toledo feels the same way about NIU’s 65-30 win last season. Rockets running back Adonis Thomas called today a “payback game.” Senior offensive lineman John Morookian called it “sad and pathetic.”
“If somebody’s not saying we have to get revenge [on] this team, then they’re lying,” Morookian told the Toledo Blade. “We have to turn it around this year. We have to change it up, and I know all my teammates are going to come out and play hard and give it all we’ve got.”
As is often the case with these games, the rivalry spills over into the fan base. Message boards have been torched with trash talk all week. They likely will be all next week, too.
Doeren may be in his first season as NIU’s coach, but he already understands what beating Toledo means to his program.
“I have a lot of respect for them,” Doeren said. “I don’t feel hatred toward them. I know our fans do. You can feel that.”
“The fans definitely dislike Toledo,” Harnish said. “Which they probably should, because Toledo has ruined a lot of great seasons for NIU. But, to me, it’s just a rivalry game, and you just want to beat them for your fans.”