Created:Friday, November 23, 2012 10:57 a.m.CDT

NIU aims to avoid letdown before MAC Championship


DeKALB — Northern Illinois will play its bowl game sometime in December, maybe early January.

First, the Huskies have to worry about today's game against Eastern Michigan then it's the Mid-American Conference Championship Game against No. 23 Kent State in Detroit next Friday.

NIU, who is currently ranked No. 24 in the Associated Press Poll and 23rd in the USA Today Coaches Poll, has Eastern Michigan on its minds this week.

The Huskies will be going bowling for a fifth consecutive season while Eastern Michigan's last bowl appearance was 1987, when the Eagles beat San Jose State in the California Bowl.

NIU head coach Dave Doeren's team enters the game as a heavy favorite, but Doeren still expects the Eagles' best effort. To him, it's basically a postseason game for Eastern Michigan.

"This is their bowl game. This is their last game of the year," Doeren said. "We're going to see everything. When you're going to the MAC Championship Game and you're ranked, the teams you play are always going to get up for that kind of challenge as competitors."

Last season, Eastern Michigan finished 6-6 - one win away from bowl eligibility due to the fact the Eagles played two Football Championship Subdivision schools. However, Eastern Michigan has taken a step back in head coach Ron English's fourth season, sitting at just 2-9 and 1-6 in MAC play. But the Eagles did get a 29-23 win at Western Michigan last week.

When the teams met at Huskie Stadium last season, Eastern Michigan gave NIU all it could handle before falling, 18-12.

This year's team isn't the same. The Eagles lost six starters off last year's defense.

It's showed, as Eastern Michigan ranks 12th in the MAC in scoring defense (36.5 points per game) and 13th in total defense (484.7 yards per game). The Eagles can't stop the run, giving up 268.8 yards per game, last in the conference, something which could clearly benefit NIU.

"They are kind of like us last year on defense to be honest with you," Doeren said. "You see the talent but they are just not consistently where they want to be. They are well-coached and their schemes are sound and they are still getting experience and things like that."

On offense, the Eagles rank last in the MAC in scoring (22.6 points per game).

One thing Eastern does bring to the table is a two-quarterback system. The Eagles will use both sophomore Tyler Benz and senior Alex Gillett, who brings a running threat. Gillett started the first three games of the season, but Benz has gotten most of the work with Gillett spending some time at receiver as well.

"It makes it a little difficult, but we already have our game plan in for both of them," NIU sophomore linebacker Jamaal Bass said of preparing for Benz and Gillett. "One of them (Gillett) is primarily a runner and the other one is primarily a passer."

With the way the Huskies have played since the season-opening loss to Iowa, winning 10 consecutive games, combined with the Eagles' struggles, this afternoon's contest could be considered a trap game. The game will be played in front of a fairly empty stadium and the MAC Championship Game against Kent State is just around the corner.

However, Doeren is confident his team isn't going to look ahead.

"We are not going to do that," Doeren said. "Our guys have already addressed it and talked about it."

5 Keys to Victory for NIU

1. Run, run, run

Eastern Michigan can't stop the run, giving up 268.8 yards per game on the ground. Running the ball is NIU's bread and butter, as the Huskies average 245.3 rushing yards per game. For Eastern Michigan, this is a recipe for disaster.

2. Light up the scoreboard

Sure, a win is a win. But big, blowout victories impress poll voters. The Huskies are now ranked, and beating the Eagles by a touchdown or so isn't going to look good to the people who cast the votes. An easy victory would also help the Huskies' slim chance at a BCS bowl game.

In college football, style points do matter.

3. Prepare for the kitchen sink

Eastern Michigan has nothing to lose this afternoon. The Eagles' season will end when the clock runs out. Therefore, Eastern Michigan head coach Ron English may want to take some gambles.

With the Eagles having two quarterbacks on the field at times, Doeren acknowledged the possibility of a double pass. He said the Huskies expect to see everything.

4. Take care of Hill

The Huskies have limited opposing running backs this season, but Eagles sophomore Bronson Hill is a good one, and has ran for 876 yards while averaging 6.8 yards per carry this season.

NIU has done a good job taking care of backs like Toledo's David Fluellen and Central Michigan's Zurlon Tipton this season. No reason the Huskies can't do the same thing with Hill.

5. Get the starters rest

NIU can't look past the Eagles, but I'm sure Huskies head coach Dave Doeren wouldn't mind if he got the chance to rest quarterback Jordan Lynch and NIU's other first-teamers during the fourth quarter of a blowout win.

Getting the first-stringers off the field early, and getting the backups some experience with the MAC Championship Game around the corner would be a positive.

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?