With a win over Toledo Wednesday night at Huskie Stadium, Northern Illinois will clinch its third consecutive Mid-American Conference West Division title.
Ryan Autullo covers the Rockets for the Toledo Blade. He was able to answer some questions about this year's team from Daily Chronicle NIU beat writer Steve Nitz.
Nitz: NIU and Toledo have had a nice rivalry going the past couple of years. The Huskie fans take it seriously, but Toledo's main rival will always be Bowling Green. How much do Rocket players and fans care about the rivalry with NIU?
Autullo: This rivalry is as fierce right now as the rivalry with Bowling Green, which has sort of tailed off in recent seasons due to Bowling Green struggling in 2010 and 2011 and the game being moved up on the schedule. Northern Illinois has denied Toledo the division title the past two years and has a chance to make it three in a row. I sense Toledo is bitter. This is great theater.
Nitz: Former NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz is now running Toledo's defense, and the unit has improved from last season. What's the main difference between this year's group and last year's defense?
Autullo: This is my first year on the beat, so I must base last season on what I heard rather than what I saw. Matukewicz's scheme is passive in nature, which is what head coach Matt Campbell wanted when he went through the hiring process. Their shared philosophy is they'd rather make an offense nickel and dime their way down the field rather than allow the defense to take chances and open themselves up for huge gains. Toledo has given up a whole bunch of yards but has a penchant for coming up with turnovers and stops at the right time. The defensive line has been beset with injuries (the starting ends are out for the season, and a third starter missed six games) so the pass rush, which is vital in a scheme light on blitzes, has suffered.
Nitz: Terrance Owens has taken over as the Rockets' QB and has had a solid season. Do you think having him take all the snaps is better than the two-quarterback system Toledo has used in the past?
Autullo: I'm not sure, frankly. The two-quarterback system drove fans nuts in the past but it produced excellent results. Toledo had a top-10 offense last season, but that was with a veteran offensive line and stud receiver Eric Page. Given the relative inexperience on that side of the ball to begin this year, I think it was important to have one voice behind center to develop cohesiveness.
Nitz: Toledo running back David Fluellen has came out of nowhere, running for 1,381 yards so far this season. What makes him so good?
Autullo: He was stuck behind two-time 1,000-yard rusher Adonis Thomas the past two seasons, but Fluellen's talent was undeniable. Still, no one could have predicted the amount of success he is having. What makes him effective is his combination of size (215 pounds), shiftiness and explosiveness in the open field. He also is a threat in the passing game. NIU's Jordan Lynch will probably be the MAC Offensive Player of the Year, but Fluellen deserves consideration. He's outstanding.
Nitz: Care to make a prediction?
Autullo: This is not my forte, but based on everything we know, Northern Illinois is at least a touchdown better than Toledo. I'll take the Huskies, 37-27. Toledo can win this game though.