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updated: 11/7/2011 12:22 PM

Speedster Lewis takes NIU to a new level

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  • Northern Illinois' Tommylee Lewis (80) returns the opening kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown against Toledo last Tuesday. Lewis also scored on a 95-yard kick return. Next up for the Huskies, a Tuesday night game at Bowling Green.

    Northern Illinois' Tommylee Lewis (80) returns the opening kickoff for a 100-yard touchdown against Toledo last Tuesday. Lewis also scored on a 95-yard kick return. Next up for the Huskies, a Tuesday night game at Bowling Green.
    Associated Press/The Toledo Blade/Jeremy Wadsworth

 
 

Everyone knew Northern Illinois had a dangerous offense. But one star of last week's 63-60 win at Toledo probably caught many by surprise.

True freshman Tommylee Lewis returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. Then after the host Rockets scored on their first possession, Lewis took it to the house again with a 95-yard score.

That was two kickoff return touchdowns in less than five minutes and the Huskies led 14-7 before running an offensive play.

"I thought it would happen earlier, to be honest with you," NIU coach Dave Doeren said at his weekly news conference. "When we brought Tommylee in here -- we're fast at receiver, I think everyone knows that -- and when he got into that group in two-a-days and made plays left and right, I'm like, 'Man, this guy's got a different gear.'"

For his efforts, Lewis earned the MAC special teams player of the week honors while quarterback Chandler Harnish claimed another MAC offensive player of the week award after throwing 6 touchdown passes against Toledo.

Lewis is listed at 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, which may be generous. But one way Northern Illinois has built a consistent winner is by taking a chance on players the bigger schools don't want.

"I remember when he first came in, his legs were moving so fast that I couldn't even see them," center Scott Wedige said. "I was like, 'Who is this guy?' He came in late this summer. I thought he was a walk-on, because he's 5-5, 100-and-nothing. Then he comes in, and all of a sudden you see that kid run. That kid's special. He's going to be a force to reckon with in this conference for a long time."

The original plan was to redshirt Lewis this season, but by Week 4, Doeren felt the Huskies needed help on kick returns. Besides his 12 kickoff returns for a 31.8-yard average, Lewis' only entry on the team stats is 3 rushing attempts for 8 yards.

"He's smaller in stature and because of that, has a huge chip on his shoulder," Doeren said. "He plays way bigger than he is. He's super aggressive; not afraid of anything or anyone. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach, Fla., where he's from, is a great program.

"He was on a team where there were seven players signed that are all playing as true freshmen in Division I football. For him to be around great players is nothing; he did it every day in his senior year. So he's way ahead when it comes to the learning curve just because of where he's from."

NIU on edge after big win:

The biggest questions facing Northern Illinois as it faces another Tuesday road game, this time at Bowling Green (7 p.m. ESPN2), is whether the Huskies can avoid a letdown after the high-scoring win at Toledo and if the defense can do better than 60 points allowed.

"I said it would be natural to have a letdown after a huge emotional win, but I don't think anyone in here wants that to happen," coach Dave Doeren said.

The Huskies are giving up 35.6 points per game this season, which isn't easy for Doeren, a former defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, to digest.

"There were certain games where we answered the call better than others," Doeren said. "Obviously, we're still standing. We just have to get enough stops where our offense can keep doing what they're doing. "

Bass won't play:

Northern Illinois freshman linebacker Jamaal Bass won't play in the Bowling Green contest. Bass was involved in a collision with members of the Toledo marching band before the game last week, and was suspended by NIU for one game.

Bass started eight games this season and ranks fifth on the team in tackles.

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