DeKALB – All Northern Illinois needs to do is win.
With a victory over Toledo tonight, the Huskies clinch their third consecutive Mid-American Conference West Division title. Should NIU beat the Rockets for the third year in a row, there won't be any scoreboard watching, the Huskies will be off to Ford Field in Detroit on Friday, Nov. 30.
"When you can be a program that sustains excellence that says a lot. NIU has been [a winning] football program for a decade obviously," NIU coach Dave Doeren said. "But you mark, at least we do, success by winning your side of the division. To say that we have done that three years in a row [would be] a big deal.'
If the Rockets, who are 10.5-point underdogs, were to come into DeKalb and become the first team to beat NIU at Huskie Stadium since Idaho accomplished the feat in September of 2009, Toledo would clinch the MAC West with a win against lowly Akron Nov. 20.
NIU could still claim the West Division with a victory at Eastern Michigan Nov. 23, and a Toledo loss to the Zips.
It's the third consecutive year the MAC West has come down to NIU and Toledo. Last season's game between the Huskies and Rockets saw the two teams rack up the points and yards, with NIU getting a 63-60 win at the Glass Bowl.
This year's Toledo team can score as well. The Rockets average 33.6 points per game, good for fourth place in the MAC. Quarterback Terrance Owens, who made his first collegiate start in Toledo's 65-30 loss at Huskie Stadium in 2010, has had a good season to date, with 2,412 yards passing and 14 touchdowns.
Running back David Fluellen has been a nightmare for opponents, and is tied for second in the nation with 1,381 rushing yards.
The difference between this year's NIU team and last season's is the Huskies don't look like a group ready to give up 60 points. NIU ranks 15th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 17.9 points per game.
Stopping Owens, Fluellen and the Rockets attack will be one of the unit's toughest challenges of the season, and Fluellen has ran for 100 yards in six consecutive games.
However, the Huskies haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher since a Week 3 win at Army.
"Collectively as a defense, we try to put a major emphasis on stopping the run. First things first, stop the run," NIU senior linebacker Tyrone Clark said. "Between the players and the coaches there has been a hard emphasis since Army. We've come together as a group and made that a goal."
NIU's defense may be improved this season, but Doeren still expects a hard-fought game from the Rockets for four quarters – or more.
"It will be a 60-minute game for sure and maybe more. We are prepared for that," he said. "I think in our minds, when you play a game of this magnitude you know it is going to the wire and if it didn't it would be a surprise. I think it is going to be a real good football game."
5 Keys to Victory for NIU
1. Send a message early
Northern Illinois has won nine games in a row and has come out victorious in 20 consecutive games at Huskie Stadium. Two seasons ago, NIU and Toledo decided the Mid-American Conference West Division title at Huskie Stadium, and the Huskies dominated with a 65-30 win.
A good start will give NIU some momentum, prevent an upset and possibly lead to a less dramatic win.
2. Get big stops
Last season, NIU's defense couldn't keep the Rockets off the field to save its life. Luckily, the Huskies' offense and Tommylee Lewis' two kickoff return touchdowns propelled NIU to a victory.
This year, the Huskies' defensive unit is improved. With the way NIU's offense is going, the defense won't need to be perfect. If the Huskies can keep the Rockets in check, Jordan Lynch and the offense will be able to do enough.
3. More special teams magic
In last season's win over Toledo, Lewis dazzled, taking two kickoffs back for touchdowns to start the game. However, the Huskies have yet to bring back a punt or kickoff for a TD this year. Lewis has returned punts the last couple of games, and getting yards hasn't been a problem. A huge special teams TD would be a nice boost.
4. Hold Fluellen in check
Toledo running back David Fluellen has run for more than 100 yards in six consecutive games. NIU hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher since Week 3. The Huskies see no reason why their solid play against opposing running backs should end now.
5. Use the Huskie Stadium edge
Sure, it's a Wednesday night and the 8 p.m. start time isn't ideal. However, the fans who are at Huskie Stadium tonight, and there should be a good amount, will be loud. Teams haven't had much success at Huskie Stadium since 2009. NIU's seniors, playing their last home game, would love to finish their careers with a 21-1 record in DeKalb.