NIU keeps focus on MAC championship
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Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish is busy getting familiar with the Huskies' new no-huddle offense.
DEKALB — With his imposing 6-foot-4, 305-pound frame, his piercing eyes and his glib tongue, it's easy to understand why senior center Scott Wedige will graduate from Northern Illinois' Professional Sales Program in December with a 3.0-plus GPA.
Like any good salesman, Wedige knows how to tailor a message and stick to it.
Northern Illinois University
Coach: Dave Doeren (1st year)
2010 record: 11-3, 8-0 (first in MAC West); won Humanitarian Bowl over Fresno State.
All-MAC candidates: QB Chandler Harnish, WR Martel Moore, LT Trevor Olson, C Scott Wedige, RG Joe Pawlak, DE Sean Progar, MLB Pat Schiller, CB Rashaan Melvin, KR/PR/S Tommy Davis.
The Huskies will go to a bowl: Provided the inexperienced defense lives up to its promise. NIU has seven new starters on that side of the ball, though all seven joined the Huskies as part of Jerry Kill's plan to upgrade the defense's speed and athleticism.
Numbers to know: NIU led the MAC last year in points (38.0 ppg) and points allowed (18.9 ppg). TCU (Mountain West) and Boise State (WAC) were the only other schools to pull off the double.
Final Sagarin rating the last five seasons (2010 listed first): 46th, 95th, 100th, 150th, 85th.
— Lindsey Willhite
Sept. 3 : ARMY , 6 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Sept. 10: Kansas, 6 p.m. (Fox College Sports)
Sept. 17: WISCONSIN*, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Sept. 24: CAL POLY, 2:30 p.m.
Oct. 1: Central Michigan, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN3.com)
Oct. 8: KENT STATE, 2:30 p.m.
Oct. 15: WESTERN MICHIGAN, 2:30 p.m. (CSN)
Oct. 22: Buffalo, 11 a.m. (ESPN+ or ESPN3.com)
Nov. 1: Toledo, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)
Nov. 8: Bowling Green, 7 p.m. (ESPN2 or ESPNU)
Nov. 15: BALL STATE, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Nov. 25: EASTERN MICHIGAN, TBA (ESPNU or ESPN3.com)
Dec. 2: MAC title game**, 6 p.m. (ESPN2)
Home games in CAPS
*—At Soldier Field
**—At Ford Field
QB: *Chandler Harnish, Sr.
RB: Jasmin Hopkins, Sr.
WR: *Martel Moore, Jr.
WR: Willie Clark, Sr.
WR: *Nathan Palmer, Sr.
TE: Jack Marks, Sr.
LT: *Trevor Olson, Sr.
LG: *Logan Pegram, Jr.
C: *Scott Wedige, Sr.
RG: *Joe Pawlak, Sr.
RT: *Keith Otis, Sr.
RE: Joe Windsor, So.
DT: Anthony Wells, So.
NG: Nabal Jefferson, Jr.
LE: *Sean Progar, Jr.
OLB: Jamaal Bass, R-Fr.
MLB: Pat Schiller, Sr.
OLB: Jordan Delegal, Sr.
CB: Rashaan Melvin, Jr.
CB: Dominique Ware, So.
SS: *Tommy Davis, Jr.
FS: Demetrius Stone, Jr.
K: Mathew Sims, So.
P: Ryan Neir, Jr.
KR: *Tommy Davis, Jr.; Perez Ashford, Jr.
PR: *Tommy Davis, Jr.
* Denotes returning starter
On multiple occasions during a conversation earlier this month, Wedige reiterated the Huskies' focus this fall.
"I don't think the offense has a leg up on the defense," he said. "I don't think the defense has a leg up on us. I think it's just healthy competition and everybody's just working to get better for that one goal: The MAC championship."
Wedige, the 2010 first-team all-MAC center who's listed by Sporting News as the league's top NFL prospect, revisited the theme two minutes later.
"We're in camp, man," Wedige said. "All that (NFL) stuff is shut out. We have a great rule on this team. The (18) seniors and Coach (Dave) Doeren sat down and we said, 'We're not going to talk to agents. We're not going to worry about any of that.'
"It's football season. If you don't focus on the task at hand, all those dreams that myself and a lot of other guys have? They won't come true.
"As I was saying before: One goal. MAC championship."
The goal is so transparent because the Huskies were pained so transparently when they lost last year's MAC title game. Favored by 18 points over Miami (Ohio) and ranked No. 25 in the BCS standings, the Huskies messed up two long passes that should have been easy touchdowns. They lost a fumble. They scored just 21 points after averaging 65.0 in their three previous games.
Despite all those problems, NIU led 21-19 in the final minute as a wobbly fourth-and-20 pass headed toward two Huskies defenders.
Rather than intercepting the ball or knocking it down to wrap up the game, the Huskies somehow tipped it into a Miami receiver's hands for a first down. Two plays later, a blown coverage turned into Miami's game-winning score with 33 seconds to go.
"It's a pit in my stomach any time anybody brings it up," Wedige said. "I'm going to be salty about it for a long time. I know every single guy on our team is."
Less than 48 hours later, the Huskies learned of head coach Jerry Kill's decision to leave for Minnesota.
That blistering 1-2 combo dazed the Huskies briefly, but now they're stronger for it. The healing process began with the 40-17 Humanitarian Bowl whipping of Fresno State.
Doeren, who spent the last five years as Wisconsin's defensive coordinator, took over the program shortly thereafter with a plan to merge the Badgers' values with NIU's veteran offense.
With first-team all-MAC quarterback Chandler Harnish operating between three all-MAC linemen — and blessed with a deep receiving corps and four solid running backs — Doeren asked offensive coordinator Matt Canada to install a no-huddle offense.
The Huskies want to wear out opponents in two ways: By trying to run 90 plays per game and running the ball down their throats in the fourth quarter.
It's a lot more work for Harnish to make sure the no-huddle flourishes — decoding the elongated signals from the sideline and relaying them to the linemen quickly — but he thinks fans ought to see the same offense that finished 12th nationally last year with 38.0 points per game.
"It's funny because the no-huddle is definitely a new change for the offense," Harnish said. "But conceptually, everything we're doing is so similar to last year. We're going to try to get the ball on the edge. We've got fast guys.
"We're going to establish the run game and then we're going to mix in the pass when we have to. We've never been, 'drop it back and throw it 50 times.' That's not who we are.
"We're built around big, physical offensive linemen with really good running backs and the great receivers who make the plays when we have to."
Critics, such as the MAC media members who picked Toledo to unseat NIU as the West Division champs, point out the Huskies retain just two defensive starters.
Doeren summons all of his years as a defensive coordinator to answer that criticism.
"Part of being a good defense — and I know this better than anybody — is having an offense that protects you," Doeren said. "If you ask them, they've bought into the fact that they can tire people out.
"You hear our offensive linemen say all the time, 'We've got 'em tired, we've got 'em tired.' That's kind of the whole deal is the conditioning aspect. I know they enjoy that."
Just ask Wedige, who dropped from 320 to 305 pounds for the chance to throw his weight around more often.
"A lot of us are the best we've looked in a long time," he said.
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