DeKALB – When Northern Illinois senior Sean Progar talks about the rest of the Huskies’ senior group, he mentions how they’ve been through a lot during their time at NIU.
Progar talked about the coaching change the Huskies had to endure two seasons ago, when Jerry Kill left for Minnesota and Dave Doeren took over.
There were the games NIU should have won, but lost, such as the defeat against Miami (Ohio) in the 2010 Mid-American Conference Championship Game – two days before Kill left for the Twin Cities.
NIU’s seniors have fought through all of that. On Friday, the Huskies’ will play in their third consecutive MAC title game when they take on Kent State at Ford Field in Detroit. After it’s all over, the seniors will be going to their fourth bowl game, the only class in school history to accomplish that feat, and could end their careers with two conference crowns and three MAC West titles.
Throughout the past decade or so, NIU has been one of the premier nonautomatic-qualifying programs in the country. However, this senior group, with 39 victories, is the winningest class in school history, and still has more work to do.
Sure, there’s plenty of talent among the group, with players like Progar, fellow defensive end Alan Baxter, receiver Martel Moore, linebacker Tyrone Clark and cornerback Rashaan Melvin. There was plenty in the classes before them, as well as in the classes below.
However, there’s something else that stands out to the group, a reason they’ve had so much success – the family atmosphere provided in DeKalb. Progar said it’s something Kill implemented when he got to NIU, and something the players have passed on to the underclassmen behind them.
To Progar, the Huskies are a family, from the true freshmen to the fifth-year seniors.
“Just in general, the way we treat each other. Like I said, the freshmen and the seniors are as tight as the seniors and the seniors. I’ll hang out with the freshmen, we’ll hang out off the field, on the field,” Progar said. “We all want the program to get better and we all see the bigger picture, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Senior receiver Perez Ashford, who missed five games with an ankle injury this year before returning for NIU’s 31-24 win over Toledo on Nov. 14, had the opportunity to play in the Big Ten at Iowa, or in the Big East at Syracuse.
He also had the chance to play for Toledo or Bowling Green, two schools closer to his hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Former NIU assistant and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers receivers coach P.J. Fleck recruited Ashford, and when he took his visit to DeKalb, something stood out.
He felt NIU’s team was just more together than what he saw at the other schools.
“When I came on my visit, you could just tell. This visit I came on was a lot different than the other schools I went to for visits,” Ashford said. “The team was just so close. Everybody, you could just feel the family atmosphere. It brings you in, it draws you in as a team.”
Tight end Jason Schepler came to NIU as a walk-on, earning a scholarship the summer after his freshman year, learning about it from Kill in what he calls the best phone call of his life.
Now, he’s one of the team’s leaders. He said the Huskie players have enjoyed football more and more since he’s played at NIU.
“I think we push everybody. We push everybody when it’s time to work out, and afterwards we all hang out with each other and have fun,” Schepler said. “When it’s time to work hard, the senior class gets everybody going, making sure everyone’s pulling their weight.”
Changing of the guard
NIU really started to dominate the MAC in 2010. The Huskies won nine games in a row to end the regular season and went unbeaten in conference play.
Then the season took a turn the first weekend in December. First, there was the painful 26-21 loss to Miami at Ford Field. Then, just two days later, the players learned their coach was off to Minneapolis.
Ashford said the loss was tough at first, but the transition smoothed out when Doeren got the job and met personally with each player. By the time spring practice started, Ashford said the players and coaching staff had gotten comfortable with one another.
“In the beginning I believe it was tough. When [Kill] first left, I think we took it kind of hard. After coach [Tom Matukewicz] coached us during the Humanitarian Bowl, that really helped us out a lot,” Ashford said. “I believe our spirits went up from there. Coach Doeren came in, he definitely took us in and got to know each and every one of us. That helped a lot, I believe.
“He became part of the family, and picked up where we left off. I believe it came out good.”
When Doeren came in, NIU had a rough patch at the beginning of his tenure, losing three of its first five games in 2011.
He’s lost only one game since.
Coming into the 2012 season, Doeren said his seniors needed to perform like seniors, and they have.
Melvin leads the MAC in passes defended with 16. Baxter and Progar are second and third in the MAC in sacks, respectively. Clark has 77 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. Wideout Martel Moore has caught 67 passes for 1,015 yards and 11 touchdowns.
When Doeren talks about his seniors, he mentions how it’s not about the numbers, but the victories.
It’s an example the seniors have set that’s been passed on to the lower classes.
“You haven’t seen some guys come off, be selfish, and be worried about their own productivity instead of the team winning,” Doeren said. “I say it all the time, if you just worry about the team winning, the individual stuff will come to you if you’re a good player.
“That’s what happened this year. Guys like Martel that have got good numbers, haven’t come in saying, ‘I need more catches.’ They just play. When you have that team-like focus from the senior class, everybody follows suit, and it’s been fantastic by those guys.”
Wins have been plentiful for NIU’s senior class, which could get No. 40 with a victory in the MAC Championship Game.
The group would like two more victories – another league championship and a bowl game victory, which likely would give the Huskies a Top 25 ranking to end the season.
Progar hopes the classes below them keep the tradition going, adding more and more wins for NIU.
“The biggest thing is we want the program to do the same thing next year,” he said. “It’s not all about this year, it’s about the years coming. Hopefully we can stay in the national exposure and keep growing as a program.”