DeKALB – Since beating Eastern Illinois in its home opener in Week 3, Northern Illinois’ defense has given up fewer total yards in each subsequent game.
The total has dropped from 577 yards in the 43-39 win over EIU to a season-low 324 yards Nov. 2 against UMass. But tonight comes the biggest test of the season for coordinator Jay Niemann’s defense, when quarterback Keith Wenning and 9-1 Ball State visit Huskie Stadium. The Cardinals would clinch the Mid-American Conference West Division with a win, and would effectively end the Huskies’ BCS hopes.
Wenning, who has thrown for 3,164 yards and 27 touchdowns, will be the best quarterback NIU has played since Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo, and he’s arguably better. Garoppolo torched NIU’s defense, throwing for 450 yards back in Week 4 as the Panthers nearly pulled off the upset.
And Wenning has plenty of weapons at his disposal. Wide receiver Willie Snead leads the Mid-American Conference in receptions (74), receiving yards (1,175) and touchdown catches (12). Jordan Williams has caught 57 passes for 800 yards and eight touchdowns, and Jamill Smith has 50 grabs for 683 yards and five TDs.
NIU sophomore cornerback Paris Logan said the Cardinals like using the slant-and-go, and are also big on double moves in the red zone.
“I would say, just for corners in particular, this is the best receiving corps we’ve had to go against [this season],” Logan said. “They do a lot of little things. Their guys are good and they’re fast.”
The Cardinals also feature a heavy running attack with tailback Jahwan Edwards, who has run for 749 yards.
NIU coach Rod Carey said that aspect of the offense makes it tougher to bring extra defensive backs into the game to help handle the passing game.
“They run it, they’re close to 50-50 run-pass,” he said. “It’s something that you’ve got to go ahead and defend both.”
In the secondary, Carey said he was “hopeful” cornerback Sean Evans would play this week. Evans has missed the past three games with a knee injury.
One cornerback who has stepped into a bigger role as the season has progressed is Logan, who has climbed up the depth chart and has been playing the best ball of any corner, according to Carey.
The Columbia, Mo., native has been starting alongside Jhony Faustin and has six pass breakups on the season.
“It’s just him getting more reps and starting to get his confidence back there. I know he didn’t play a whole lot last year, but the more reps he gets the more confidence he gets back there,” NIU cornerbacks coach Kelvin Sigler said. “That’s one thing with the secondary, we kind of push each other, try and make each other better.
“It kind of started off slow at first but I think they’re starting to pick it up. We’ve been getting better each week.”