DeKALB – Their smiles did the accomplishment justice. Standing in the Yordon Center foyer over the weekend, Northern Illinois football players and coaches talked about the team’s least discussed – but perhaps most important – piece of trivia.
With seven sacks allowed through 11 games, the Huskies are on pace to surrender fewer than 10 this season. No Mid-American Conference team has done that since 2004, the first year the statistic was kept. Since 2007, only eight programs have done it nationally. Two were service academies that mostly run the football.
“We’ve got a quarterback who’s got a chance to do some things no quarterbacks have ever done statistically,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said of Chandler Harnish’s quest to become the first player in college football history to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,500. “That starts with his protection and the holes the offensive line opens up for him. So you can’t say enough about what they do.”
The numbers are staggering. But those most directly responsible were reluctant to offer anything more than their smiles.
Asked whether his offensive line was doing something special, position coach Rod Carey immediately mentioned the two sacks it allowed last week against Ball State. Given the same question, senior center Scott Wedige simply shrugged it off.
“Now that you say that, it’s a great feat for us, but, you know ... no, not really,” Wedige said, shaking his head. “We just kind of do our thing. If we give up a sack, we don’t accept it. It’s not something we like to do. We get upset because we shouldn’t get beat. We’re all a bunch of old guys who’ve been around for a while. There’s not much we haven’t seen, so usually there’s not something that will beat us.”
The “bunch of old guys” are five returning starters. Four are seniors who will play their final game in Huskie Stadium at 10 a.m. Friday against Eastern Michigan. Three were named to the all-MAC first team last season.
So expectations couldn’t have been much higher for this group entering the fall. The impressive thing, Harnish said, is how the offensive line has surpassed them.
“It really is hard to criticize them,” said Harnish, who thanks his offensive line with a home-cooked meal each week, and puts steak on their plates after games when they allow no sacks. “They’ve just done fantastic. We expect greatness from them, and if they don’t perform up to par everyone is kind of wondering what’s going on.”
Like last week – kind of.
The nature of the offensive line is low-praise, high-criticism. Often, it takes an underwhelming performance like the Huskies’ two-sacks-allowed outing against Ball State to appreciate success.
But Harnish said last week’s numbers were misleading.
“One time it was my fault, I held onto the ball too long. The other time, it was a running back,” Harnish said. “So really when you look at it, the line did a good job. We in the backfield, we didn’t do a good job.”
Doeren knows what a good offensive line looks like. He spent the past five seasons at Wisconsin, a program that yearly produces NFL linemen.
It’s impossible to compare the Badgers and Huskies offensive lines. Wisconsin’s offense regularly trots out jumbo formations, featuring a few extra linemen. NIU prefers to spread the field, keeping the traditional five-player offensive line.
“But you can compare the results,” Doeren said. “The results our O-line is – and the number of starts those guys have put together – I don’t know how you can say anything more than that. The proof is in the stats.”