Created:Saturday, December 3, 2011 3:18 a.m.CDT
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VIEWS: Improbably, NIU's defense leads the way

By RYAN WOOD - rwood@shawmedia.com

DETROIT – The game over, the Mid-American Conference championship in his team's grasp and no chance of a fluke whisking it away, Northern Illinois receiver Nathan Palmer finally felt comfortable discussing the dream.

It started this week, leading up to the Mid-American Conference Championship game. It was based in history. Last year, NIU's defensive players walked off Ford Field's turf with an empty feeling, a late 4th-and-20 conversion costing the title. Palmer didn't want to say too much, didn't want to jinx Friday's return against Ohio. But he had a feeling things would be different for them this time.

He saw it in the dream.

"I just kept seeing interceptions," Palmer said.

Three, to be exact. Each of them critical. Each of them against Ohio sophomore Tyler Tettleton, who seems poised to be the next great MAC quarterback when Chandler Harnish's eligibility ends.

NIU didn't tip the football in the air this year. The Huskies defense wasn't leaving anything to chance. And when they walked off the turf, it was only after stopping at midfield to celebrate their 23-20 win that sealed the first MAC title since 1983.

"I knew it," said Palmer, named the game's MAC West MVP. "I just had that feeling. The defense, they went through a lot of adversity. To their credit, they had to switch a lot of styles of defenses in the beginning. No one gave them credit. But I knew this game meant a lot to them."

Palmer expected the defense's second straight shutdown effort. He saw their preparation on the other end of Huskie Stadium all week, flying around and making plays. Even though it was practice, he thought it would translate to the game.

He was right.

The final stats show numbers that were impossible earlier this season. NIU held Ohio to 7 of 18 on third down. It gave up 130 rushing yards on 39 carries, an average of 3.3 yards per carry. It had a second-half shutout against an offense that entered fourth in the MAC with 31.9 points per game.

Defense wins championships. On Friday night, defense won this championship.

Anyone think this was possible two months ago? Anyone? Me neither. The image of Central Michigan's scoreboard never left my thoughts. Forty-one points, and NIU lost. It doomed the rest of the year.

But each week, there were fewer weaknesses. The defense we've seen the past two games doesn't even compare. Fundamentally, the Huskies have been sound. The defensive line has penetrated and kept blockers off linebackers. Perimeter players have stretched ball carries out to the sidelines and taken proper angles. Everyone tackles.

It's everything you'd want from proper defense, and it's never been more apparent than Friday.

"I can't even say how proud I am," junior defensive end Sean Progar said. "It goes to everybody. ... The game shouldn't have ended any other way but this."

No one sounded prouder than the offensive players, for good reason. They played most of the season under an incredible amount of pressure. As the defense took its early lumps, the offense knew it had to score 40 points to have any chance.

It's not a recipe for sustained success. It didn't have to be.

These past two weeks, NIU's offense scored 41 points – combined. Both games, it won. That's something even Palmer would've struggled dreaming about two months ago.

"The whole year, we were used to having to score a lot," Palmer said. "This time, they were shutting them out, and they kept getting stop after stop. The offense, we knew that if they just kept it in the range of 20 points, we were going to come out there and win. We were going to come out there and play better in the second half.

• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at rwood@shawmedia.com.

Given a full slate of games against Big Ten teams, which team finishes with the best record?
NIU
Purdue
Northwestern