It wasn’t senior receiver Willie Clark busting out of his statistical slump, or quarterback Chandler Harnish’s continued brilliance. Northern Illinois’ second-half shutout at Bowling Green was nice, but nothing new.
The clearest sign Tuesday night that NIU is ready to win the Mid-American Conference championship was a decision.
After scoring 17 points on its first three possessions, NIU drove before being stopped on third down. The situation, a fourth-and-4 from Bowling Green’s 41-yard line, seemed automatic. NIU coach Dave Doeren would keep his offense on the field, playing to its strength.
Except, this time, Doeren didn’t.
“Bowling Green is one of the best third-down defenses in our league,” Doeren said Wednesday. “We didn’t want them to get momentum in that situation.”
NIU didn’t score on its fourth straight possession to open Tuesday’s 45-14 win. But the Huskies’ fifth straight MAC win – third consecutive on the road – was as complete of a performance as any this season.
Clearly, this is not the same team it was through September.
“It’s been a good five weeks,” Doeren said. “We just got out of a team meeting, and I said exactly that – ‘Five weeks ago, we were 2-3’ – so just congratulating the coaches and players for taking over.
“Any time you take over a program, you’re going to have some transitional pain. We had that, and for us it took a few really tough, look-at-yourself-in-the-mirror losses to get past that.”
Doeren’s decision to punt couldn’t have been easy. NIU defended Bowling Green’s first play like it was facing Toledo, which scored 60 points on the Huskies last week.
Falcons receiver Kamar Jorden beat cornerback Jhony Faustin on a skinny post from the slot, catching quarterback Matt Schilz’s pass for an 83-yard touchdown.
The play made SportsCenter’s Top 10. The game was off to the races.
But Doeren immediately rallied his players on the sideline.
“Obviously you want to start better than that,” Doeren said. “I just grabbed all the guys together and said, ‘Don’t panic. We’re going to get through this. Just go out and execute.’ ”
NIU’s defense responded with a couple fourth-down stops. From there, it was dominant, allowing just 251 yards after Jorden’s touchdown.
Senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller foreshadowed it all last week when he said the defense felt like it had something to prove against Bowling Green.
“It was tough to celebrate after [beating Toledo],” Schiller said Thursday. “From a defensive standpoint, you’d like to think that we could’ve held them to fewer points.”
Nobody found it tough to celebrate Tuesday. The 46-point difference was NIU’s best week-to-week turnaround since holding Kent State to 20 points in a win Nov. 10, 2007, one game after allowing Toledo 70.
Wednesday morning, there was no regret, no hollow feeling that something more should’ve been done. Just the lingering affects of Doeren’s decision. And, of course, what NIU’s defense did to justify it.
After Ryan Neir’s punt stopped rolling at the Falcons’ 8-yard line, Bowling Green lost seven yards in three plays. The Falcons punted. A few possessions later, NIU took a 24-7 lead and never led by less than 10 points the rest of the way.
Against Wisconsin, Doeren made the same call when the Huskies still were close in the second quarter. The NIU defense gave up a 97-yard touchdown drive, letting the Badgers effectively end the game early.
Not the same team, indeed.
“Obviously as a head coach, you always like to think you can punt and stop somebody,” Doeren said. “For us to get to where we can do that I think is big.”
More than big. It’s the reason NIU seems poised to win its first MAC championship since 1983.
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.