Created: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 11:55 p.m. CDT

Target on their back as MAC play starts

Northern Illinois running back Leighton Settle is forced out of bounds by Kansas cornerback Greg Brown after a 9-yard run during the second quarter Saturday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. (Rob Winner –

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DeKALB – Saturday afternoon, Northern Illinois opens up Mid-American Conference play against Central Michigan.

As Huskies head coach Dave Doeren puts it, the game is the beginning of season No. 2.

“I think when you get through your preseason schedule, all those games count big time, obviously when it comes to being in a bowl game,” Doeren said. “But now, you kind of start that next stage of where do we go from here. We are 3-1, but at the end of the day now the next eight weeks are what are going to count as far as the conference and the MAC race.”

For the first time since 1984, NIU heads into MAC play as the defending conference champion. With the Huskies starting divisional play as well, Doeren said the MAC West is as strong as its ever been.

Three schools – Central Michigan, Ball State and Western Michigan – got wins over BCS schools last week as the Chippewas upset Iowa, 32-31.

Through the first four weeks of the season, the schools in the MAC West have a combined record of 13-8, but four of those losses come from Eastern Michigan.

Prior to the season, depth looked like it would be strong in the MAC West, and the division’s success hasn’t surprised Doeren. He mentioned the amount of senior quarterbacks, and how the league’s newer coaches, such as Central Michigan’s Dan Enos, came in and played a lot of starters who are now veterans.

This season Doeren understands there’s going to be a target on NIU’s back as the defending conference champions.

“I told the guys the higher you climb the latter, the more you expose yourself, to what’s going on,” he said. “I think being back-to-back MAC West champions and going into the season we had the nation’s longest winning streak, I think a lot of people circled our game as a game that they were going to have to bring their best.”

Last year might have been NIU’s first MAC title since 1983, but the Huskies have been a consistent winner for roughly 10 years and have won the MAC West two years in a row. To senior defensive end Sean Progar, teams have always been gunning for them.

“Since I’ve been here we’ve had a target on our back. We’ve been a good program. Clearly won the MAC last year, and we started out well this year so team’s are going to want to beat us. We want to beat teams, too,” Progar said. “So, they can have a target on our back all they want but we’re still going to have that confidence and preparation. As long as we do that we’ll be fine.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?