Created:Wednesday, August 27, 2014 11:21 p.m.CDT
Updated:Wednesday, August 27, 2014 11:27 p.m.CDT

NIU football ready to return, Huskies to play season opener today

Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey runs out with the team to start the second half of the Mid-American Conference Championship game Dec. 6 against Bowling Green at Ford Field in Detroit. (AP file photo)

DeKALB – Rod Carey, the Northern Illinois football coach, said Presbyterian reminds him of North Dakota in 2010.

North Dakota was Northern Illinois’ FCS opponent that season, and gave NIU a scare, although the Huskies escaped with a 23-17 win.

Carey compared this year’s Presbyterian team, which the Huskies will take on at 6 tonight at Huskie Stadium when they look to extend their home winning streak to 27 games.

And Carey is plenty familiar with that team, as he was North Dakota’s offensive line coach from 2008 to 2010.

Carey compared the two programs in that both teams recently moved up to the FCS from Division II. Presbyterian joined the FCS ranks in 2007.

“When I was at North Dakota, I came on the first year that they were moving up to the I-AA level at the time, so I’ve got a lot of respect for what they are doing and their university, and how they’re really pushing football to the forefront and I applaud them for that,” Carey said.

The Blue Hose haven’t had much success at the FCS level, and have won just five games the past two seasons combined.

However, Carey thinks this year’s squad will be the best one Presbyterian has had in Harold Nichols’ six seasons with the program.

“Coach Nichols has a fine football team and to his words he said it, he probably has his best football team to date and I believe it,” Carey said. “Just looking back at last year, how they finished the year from about the midpoint on going through the season with the players they have and kind of look at what they’ve got coming back off of injury, I really believe that they are a fine football team.”

Last season’s FCS opponent, Eastern Illinois, nearly ended NIU’s home winning streak, though the Blue Hose don’t have a player like former Eastern quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who’s now with the New England Patriots.

“Because of the success we’ve had, every team is going to give us their best shot, so we have to come to play,” NIU senior safety Dechane Durante said. “Last year Eastern Illinois came in here and gave us their best shot and almost stole it from us.”

Today is also a rare event in that NIU is opening up the season at Huskie Stadium. Since the upset win against Maryland in 2003, it’s happened just once – the 49-26 win over Army in 2011.

“I think it’s good for us (since) we haven’t opened at home in a couple of years,” Durante said. “It’s good for our season, it’s good for our fans and good for us as a team to get the season started.”

After the way last season ended, with NIU being on the brink of a second straight BCS berth only to suffer losses in the Mid-American Conference Championship game and Poinsettia Bowl, the Huskies are certainly ready to get back at it.

“It’s definitely been motivation all offseason,” NIU offensive tackle Ryan Brown said. “We’re ready to get back on the field and have a successful season.”

Five storylines to watch in this game

1. Quarterbacks

Pretty obvious. Northern Illinois has yet to name a starter for the season opener, and head coach Rod Carey hasn’t ruled out playing multiple quarterbacks, even though he’s said in the past he doesn’t want to do that.

It will be interesting to see which quarterbacks play, who gets the most reps and what signal-caller makes the most of it.

2. Akeem Daniels

It’s crazy to think that Daniels hasn’t played in a game since the Orange Bowl, the game everyone wondered why he wasn’t getting the ball as much. Now, we know.

Daniels missed last season because of a foot injury suffered in the 2012 Mid-American Conference Championship game, but he’s healthy, and listed as the starter with Cameron Stingily now out with an injury. If Daniels plays as he did at the end of 2012, it’s a great sign for NIU’s offense.

3. The young defensive backfield

Four true freshmen cornerbacks – Albert Smalls, Tifonte Hunt, Mayomi Olootu and Shawun Lurry, are listed on NIU’s two-deep.

It’s a good game for the young players to get their feet wet in, and this will certainly be something to keep an eye on throughout the season.

4. Defensive line

Four new starters make up the Huskies’ front four. Defensive ends Jason Meehan and Perez Ford saw time, and had success, in 2013, and are now in starting roles. The starting tackles aren’t quite as well-known.

Junior-college transfer Ben Compton will start at one spot, and redshirt freshman William Lee at the other.

5. Which tailbacks see the field

NIU’s running back depth looks like a strength. Joel Bouagnon, who saw time as a true freshman last season, is listed as the backup. Redshirt freshman Jordan Huff, sophomore Draco Smith and junior Keith Harris Jr. are other backs who could see time.

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?