DeKALB – With four games to go in the regular season, Northern Illinois continues to have a bull’s-eye on its back.
The Huskies had it to start the season, coming off two straight Mid-American Conference West Division titles and a league championship last year.
Today, at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, Mich., Western Michigan will be the team gunning for NIU as the Huskies look to win their eighth consecutive game and remain unbeaten in the MAC.
At this point, the Huskies will have a target on their back wherever they play, something the group embraces.
“You’ve got to love it,” defensive end Sean Progar said. “That means you’re doing something right. It means the program’s on the rise, and everybody’s working and we deserve it. So, you can’t be nervous having a bull’s-eye on your back. You’ve got to embrace it, and we do as a team.”
When the season started, many thought Western Michigan would be competing for a MAC West title along with NIU and Toledo. However, the Broncos sit at just 3-5 and 1-3 in the MAC, just fighting to become bowl-eligible.
With Western Michigan basically needing to win every game to play in a bowl game, Huskies coach Dave Doeren understands his team is going to get the Broncos’ best shot.
“They’re in a position a lot of teams are right now: fighting for postseason play. They’re still fighting for it,” Doeren said. “Their season hasn’t been ruled as a season where they can’t reach a bowl game yet. I know how competitive their coaches are. I’ve gotten to know some of them. They’re really good guys. I know that they’ll have their guys ready to play a hard-fought game with us.”
One reason for Western Michigan’s lack of success this season has been the loss of quarterback Alex Carder, a second-team All-MAC selection a year ago, who suffered a hand injury in the Broncos’ win over Connecticut on Sept. 22. Tyler Van Tubbergen has started in his place the past four games, and Western Michigan has won only one of those contests. The lone victory in that stretch came against winless Massachusetts.
The Huskies will host UMass next week before the big game against Toledo on Nov. 14, which should decide the MAC West. Then it’s off to Eastern Michigan for the regular-season finale Nov. 23.
The way Progar puts it, if the Huskies play the way they should, they’ll leave Kalamazoo with a win and take one more step toward another conference championship.
“It’s always going to be about us, is the way we feel,” he said. “If NIU beats NIU, then we’ll lose the game. If we play how we’re supposed to, then we’ll win the game.”
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Don't beat yourself
NIU is a touchdown-favorite in Kalamazoo. If NIU doesn't make mistakes and limits its turnovers, which the Huskies have done over the past two weeks, they should get a victory.
2. Limit Wilson
Western Michigan wide receiver Jaime Wilson averages 7.4 receptions per game, good for second in the MAC. He should see a lot of coverage from NIU cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who's done a good job of handling opposing receivers this season.
3. Get some tailback production
NIU's group of running backs ran for 148 yards in last week's 37-7 win over Akron. The Huskies have a nice group of three tailbacks who can run the ball — Leighton Settle, Akeem Daniels and Keith Harris Jr. None of these backs is going to carry the ball 30 times, but if the group can pick up its share of yards, it will not only help pick up first downs, but take some pressure off quarterback Jordan Lynch as well.
4. Make QB Van Tubbergen uncomfortable
Western Michigan quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen, who will be starting in place of Alex Carder once again, has thrown more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (8) this season. NIU's defense leads the MAC in sacks. If the Huskies get pressure, things could get ugly for the Broncos' junior QB.
5. Handle the Broncos up front
Western Michigan presents a challenge with its defensive line, which features players like Freddie Bishop and Deauntay Legrier, as well as defensive tackle Travonte Boles. The Broncos are second in the MAC in sacks. NIU has done a good job keeping defensive pressure off Lynch this season, and Lynch always helps himself with his ability to scramble.