by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

2011 turned out to be a magical season for Northern Illinois, which stormed back from a 20-0 half-time deficit vs. Ohio in the conference title game to claim its first MAC championship in 28 years! The title came in the first year under former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dan Doeren, who assumed control of a program that was left in pretty good shape when predecessor Jerry Kill left to take a shot at breathing some life into the Minnesota Gophers.

The Huskies went on to defeat Arkansas State 38-20 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, ending the 2011 season with a nine-game winning streak, the longest in the nation going into 2012. Doeren, after just that one season in DeKalb, subsequently got a few “feelers” in the postseason from teams looking to fill coaching vacancies. He might indeed move on to bigger-name program in the future. But he’s got things “going on” right now in DeKalb, with a new, indoor practice facility due to come on line.

The key question for this season is whether the Huskies can get to their third straight MAC title game without the presence of star QB Chandler Harnish (right), who is now getting a chance to impress with the Indianapolis Colts. Harnish, who became a master at directing the Huskie spread attack, led the team in rushing last season with 1379 yards in addition to carving up opposing defenses with 28 TD passes vs. only 6 interceptions. As so many college mentors will tell you, there is nothing that relieves pressure from the head coach as much as a healthy, seasoned, senior QB. Such was the case last season for Doeren, as the Huskies finished 11th in total offense, scored 38.3 ppg, finished +6 in turnovers, and hit the 40-point mark nine times.

This season, Doeren’s rebuilding skills will be tested, as NIU returns only three starters on offense, only one of those in the offensive line. On the bright side, junior Jordan Lynch—Chandler’s backup for the last two seasons—shined in the spring, giving every indication he can lead the team. Doeren says Lynch’s strength is running, although the junior (15 of 20 passing last season) impressed with his leadership and four TD passes in the spring game. Lynch is blessed with the makings of a good receiving corps, as sr. wideouts Martel Moore (left) & Perez Ashford each corralled 47 passes last season, and soph burner Tommylee Lewis (back-to-back kick return TDs in last season’s video-game-like 63-60 victory at Toledo) appears ready to expand his contributions. Plus, spring ball revealed a group of useful TEs, from 6-2, 274 blocker Jason Shepler to 6-3 soph receiver Luke Eakes (60-yard TD in the spring game) to 6-8 soph red-zone threat Tim Semisch.

From a team that has recently sent ground-gobbling RBs such as Michael Turner & Garrett Wolfe to the NFL, there is no clear heir apparent to Jasmin Hopkins and the serviceable 956 ground yards he racked up in 2011. It is likely to be RB by committee in the Huskie spread this season, with 5-7 jr. Akeem Daniels (303 YR in 2001) providing the speed and 5-10, 246 Jamal Womble (124 yards) providing the punch. 5-9, 199 jr. Leighton Settle is also expected to get carries for a team that is rarely short on RB talent.

Last year’s defense was a bit shorthanded and ended up allowing 30.3 ppg and finishing 88th overall. Doeren is anticipating a major improvement, giving his rebuilding offense a chance to get things together. While the offense has three returning starters, the defense can fairly count 11. That’s because the LBing corps welcomes back two 2010 starters, sr. OLB Tyrone Clark (suspended last season, but stayed to play with the scout team) and jr. MLB Devon Butler (80 tackles in 2010; missed last season while recovering from a gunshot wound). They join emerging soph OLB Jamaal Bass (right, vs. Buffalo last October; 62 Ts in 2011).
The defensive line has a pair of hard-charging senior DEs in Sean Proger & Alan Baxter, who each collected 5½ sacks last season. Sr. Nabal Jefferson (46 tackles and one int. TD) has proven to be a stubborn NG, and he is expected to get help this season from 6-1, 308 juco Ken Bishop, who enrolled early and went through spring practice. The defensive backfield is a veteran unit with three well-tested CBs, backed by S Jimmy Ward (100 Ts last season) and soph S Dechane Durante (3 ints. LY).

Jr. PK Mathew Sims (only 5-9) is small in stature and has room for improvement (20 of 28 FGs last season), but he did hit a pair of game-winners last year, including the come-from-behind MAC title clincher in the 23-20 victory over Ohio.

Summary...Last season, Doeren took over a team with a proven, high-scoring offense and an undersized, rebuilding defense. This year, it’s the other way around, or--as Doeren describes it--a “flip” of last season’s situation. In 2012, Northern’s QB, OL and RBs need experience and must prove themselves on the field, while Doeren’s defense appears to be an improving unit with more size and depth than last season. The Huskie linemen and LBs are still mostly undersized compared with their neighbors in the Big Ten, which means that NIU’s nine-game winning streak could very well come to an end in its season opener, a clash vs. Iowa at Soldier Field in Chicago. After two straight fine 11-3 seasons, Northern appears to have enough talent, potential and coaching to contend for a third straight MAC title game...but perhaps to fall just short of its goal in the competitive MAC West. Look for another good season from the Huskies. But no title unless jr. QB Jordan Lynch develops into a close facsimile of MAC spread maestro Chandler Harnish in a hurry.


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