Northern Illinois looks to continue its 21-game on-campus win streak Saturday, when the Huskies take on FCS foe Eastern Illinois. Brian Nielsen covers the Panthers for the Journal Gazette and Times-Courier. He took some time out of his schedule to answer some questions about EIU.
Steve Nitz: Eastern Illinois is 3-0, ranked in the top 10 in both major FCS top 25 polls and already has a win over an FBS team (San Diego State). Why have the Panthers had so much success early on?
Nielsen: Everything seems to be clicking, at least enough to eke past Southern Illinois in double-overtime and then rout two others. Along with the offense you expected to be good, the defense has been creating turnovers and playing well considering the number of plays it has to defend when its offense goes so quickly.
Nitz: Bob Spoo coached at Eastern forever (1987-2011). How has the program changed under second-year head coach Dino Babers?
Nielsen: Obviously, Babers’ offense he brought from Baylor (Babers was the Bears' wide receivers coach) is just a sign of the times and really different. But I think Dino tries to have some of the same principles as Spoo. He was an assistant on Spoo’s first staff in 1987, remained friends and now they have breakfast or dinner together at times. When Babers interviewed for the job he said he wanted to draw from Spoo’s insight. Some of the success after Spoo’s 2-9 last season can be attributed to Jimmy Garoppolo going through growing pains as a freshman and sophomore quarterback and developing into an NFL prospect. This is a mixture of the recruits Babers inherited and some other good ones he brought after he got the job.
Nitz: What’s fan support usually like at O’Brien Stadium? Are the Panthers supported well by the students/community, or are EIU students spending their weekends up 1-57 in Champaign?
Nielsen: EIU has only had one home game, which had a good attendance but an EIU-Illinois State game usually does. I am not in touch enough to know what the students do. It has become more of a commuter college than in my days, partly because I think more kids have cars. I do hear people talking about EIU this year. A high-scoring offense will do that.
Nitz: What have the players and coaches been saying about playing an in-state FBS opponent like NIU?
Nielsen: Some guys from the Chicago area are glad to be playing close to home but since this is the first meeting of the millennium I don’t think there is a lot of rivalry there. Babers notes that he also has to keep in mind the Ohio Valley Conference season starts next week. Those games are the ones that determine if EIU gets in the FCS playoffs.
Nitz: Do you see the Panthers competing with the Huskies on Saturday?
Nielsen: I guess I would say no. This is about getting the $250,000 to support the athletic program. But then again, I didn’t think they would beat San Diego State by three touchdowns either.