DeKALB – If Northern Illinois plays the way it should today, the Huskies should have no problem beating Massachusetts.
By a lot.
The NIU football team is 8-1 and 5-0 in the Mid-American Conference, and UMass is winless. The Huskies are first in the MAC in scoring offense and second in scoring defense. UMass is last in both categories.
NIU opened as a 35-point favorite, which was the largest point spread in college football this week. The Huskies were heavy favorites over their first two MAC crossover opponents, Buffalo and Akron, and NIU beat them easily, winning 45-3 and 37-7, respectively.
However, as the old saying goes, there’s a reason they play the games. Huskies coach Dave Doeren mentioned NIU nearly lost to North Dakota two seasons ago. So far, the Huskies haven’t looked like they’ve taken anyone lightly.
“I’ve been fortunate watching other teams lose to teams they shouldn’t. Obviously, we’ve been in some close games and had to come back and win,” Doeren said. “I just never want to be on that side of the ball that does that.”
Any time a team makes the move up from the Football Championship Subdivision, it’s going to go through some growing pains. That’s something first-year Minutemen coach Charley Molnar is experiencing in 2012.
UMass is also a young team. Going by the team’s depth chart, Molnar has seven freshmen in the starting lineup.
The Minutemen have played some competitive games. UMass lost to Ohio by only three points Sept. 29, and in last week’s loss to Vanderbilt, the Minutemen were down by only seven until late in the first half.
“I think they’re well-coached,” Doeren said. “You see improvement. ... It’s not like each week they’ve gotten worse.”
Against Tennessee-Martin, Akron and Buffalo, the Huskies did a good job of getting off to a fast start and not letting the opponent think they’re in the game.
Playing with the lead also makes life easier on the Huskies’ defense.
“I think that is one big thing. We know our offense is going to put up those points, and they’re going to put them up quick, so that means teams are going to have to start passing the ball,” defensive end Sean Progar said. “We think our pass defense is one of our strengths with our D-line getting after the quarterback and our secondary covering.
“It works out. Our offense puts points up quickly and teams are forced to have put points up as fast as they can, as well."
FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Don't let the Minutemen get confident
When a heavy underdog plays a favorite well for a half or so, sometimes the confidence gained is parlayed into an upset win. For the most part, NIU has done a good job this season getting an early lead on teams like UMass.
2. Don't make Lynch do it all
Huskie tailbacks ran for only 42 yards in last Saturday's 48-34 win at Western Michigan. The lack of production only puts more pressure on quarterback Jordan Lynch. Junior tailback Leighton Settle should be back. I'm sure Dave Doeren would love to see him, Keith Harris Jr. and Akeem Daniels pick up some yards.
3. Let the backups get some experience
Today, players like Harris, redshirt-freshman quarterback Matt McIntosh and a number of NIU players who normally don't get a ton of playing time could see plenty of experience should NIU hold a big lead in the second half.
4. Stay healthy
The Huskies are banged up right now, just like many teams around the country. Settle and cornerback Rashaan Melvin didn't play last week. Safety Dechane Durante and receiver Perez Ashford have missed the past few games.
The bye week is coming at the right time.
5. Look ahead to Toledo – only after a win
The Nov. 14 contest against Toledo has loomed as a showdown for the MAC West title. NIU has taken care of business so far, and with a win over UMass, the big game will be right around the corner.