Cleat Geeks

MAC Football: NIU Reign Over?

From 2010-2015 the NIU football team has either won the MAC West Division or shared the honor. Over the same stretch they have won three MAC Championships, had three different Head Coaches, and busted the BCS by making it to the 2013 Orange Bowl against Florida St. Now, as conference play starts for the Huskies, they look like a team with no direction, and one who lacks what it takes to make it seven straight Division titles.

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The NIU football team had its ups and downs last season. They almost beat the football powerhouse Ohio St. on the road, but the loss started a three game losing streak for the Huskies. Then they rattled off five straight conference wins, but had to wait until a Mid-Week MACtion game of two conference foes to see if they would make it back to the Championship game at Ford Field in Detroit. Looking back to last season, NIU struggled early and late in the year. Some of this can be contributed to the loss of their star quarterback, Drew Hare. Hare suffered a season ending Achilles injury in their game against Toledo in 2015, but they were able to win the game. Redshirt FR Ryan Graham saw a majority of the playing time after Hare’s injury, and even lead them to a win over one of  their biggest conference rivals, Western Michigan. But, the early success was negated when Graham went down in their game against Ohio, leaving them with True FR Tommy Fiedler to start. The Huskies ended up losing the game against Ohio, the MAC Championship game, and a much anticipated bowl game again Boise St. in which they were blown out 55-7. Heading into the off-season Head Coach Rod Carey was looking for his team to get healthy in the hopes of making another run starting in the Fall.

Well, Fall has arrived and the Huskies (0-4), just lost to in state FCS Western Illinois (3-0). To top it all off, the loss was at home. The Huskies opened the season at Wyoming and lost in 3OT, in a game that was plagued by a late start time and penalties. Wyoming (2-2), has already matched their win total from last year. In a game the Huskies should have won, nothing went right for them. SR-QB Drew Hare looked good playing in his first game since his season ending injury, as he threw for 329 YDS and 3 TDS. He was able to find his favorite target, Kenny Golladay, ten times for 144 YDS and 2 TDS. What hurt NIU in this game was their inability to stop the Wyoming rushing attack, as they gained 243 YDS on the ground and found the endzone three times. It was Josh Allen’s rushing touchdown in the third OT that sunk NIU to an 0-1 start.

Carey acknowledged in the post-game press conference there was a lot of work to do for the Huskies, and it seemed as they were poised to make the changes before their game at South Florida. This was not the case as USF throttled NIU 48-17, in a game where Drew Hare was once again injured. This time he suffered an ankle and knee injury that could sideline him for the season, meaning his career with the Huskies may had ended. The defense once again struggled to stop anything as USF ended the game with 658 Total Yards to NIU’s 318.

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With the injury to Hare, Ryan Graham once again was called upon to replace him in the starting role. The now Redshirt SO finished the game against USF with only 65 YDS through the air in the limited playing time he had. Now heading into week three, Graham was able to work with the first-team offense and build some chemistry. Even with the full week to prepare, NIU was not able to hang with SDSU (3-0), as they lost 42-28. Graham finished with 213 YDS, 3 TDS, but also 2 INTS. At this point, it is not the offense that seems to be the problem. Yes, they had a bad game against USF, but they also lost their star QB mid-way through the game. The defense has not been good, giving up over 40 points in their first three games.

It all came to a head at Huskie Stadium last weekend, where FCS Western Illinois beat NIU 28-23 at home. NIU out gained WIU, had more first downs, and added over 300 rushing YDS, but the defense could not get key stops when needed. Carey tried to spark the offense with having SR-QB Anthony Maddie take snaps under center. This seemed to help them for a time, before the offense once again stalled. Heading into conference play at 0-4, the Huskies will have to run the table to have any shot at making it back to Ford Field and the MAC Title game.

Looking forward for the Huskies, it seems as if their time as Kings of the MAC have come to a close. With their next two games on the road against Ball St. and Western Michigan, it could get ugly quick for them. Yes, they played well in conference last year after losing three in a row, including their conference opener, but this team is just a spark it has had in previous years. It was a good run for NIU, but the torch looks to be handed off, unwillingly, this season to a new team.

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Western Michigan and Toledo are heavy favorites to overtake NIU, and look for their game this year to be a deciding game for the West Division. The East Division is much more open. Bowling Green has had recent success, but are off to a 1-3 start this season. Conference play starts this weekend for a majority of the teams, and we will learn much about NIU’s conference fate, and see who takes charge in becoming the MAC’s next top dog.

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