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updated: 12/1/2011 6:49 PM

Geneva's Schiller shows NIU the way

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  • Surrounded by many younger players on defense, senior Northern Illinois linebacker Pat Schiller of Geneva has led the Huskies in tackles this season. Friday he leads them into the MAC championship game against Ohio.

      Surrounded by many younger players on defense, senior Northern Illinois linebacker Pat Schiller of Geneva has led the Huskies in tackles this season. Friday he leads them into the MAC championship game against Ohio.
    Photo courtesy of NIU Media Services/ Scott Walstr

  • He started every game as a sophomore, and then a knee injury kept Northern Illinois linebacker Pat Schiller of Geneva in a reserve role. This year, however, the senior has led the Huskies in tackles and taken on a leadership role with his younger teammates.

      He started every game as a sophomore, and then a knee injury kept Northern Illinois linebacker Pat Schiller of Geneva in a reserve role. This year, however, the senior has led the Huskies in tackles and taken on a leadership role with his younger teammates.
    Photo courtesy of NIU Media Services/ Scott Walstr

 
 

The success experienced by Northern Illinois this season was often one-sided.

That is, while the offense scored at least 40 points nine times in 12 games, the defense had some forgettable moments.

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Kansas (2-10) scored 45 points against the Huskies and Central Michigan (3-9) rang up 48 in upset victories. Then there was NIU's video-game-come-to-life 63-60 win over Toledo on Nov. 1.

It was a spectacular performance by the offense, but a game that might make a defensive player wear a hoodie to class for at least a week.

"There was never a time when I was embarrassed to be on the defense, by any means," senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller said. "I was always proud and I knew we would pull it through. Sometimes, you've got one side of the ball that shines more than the other. Our offense has a bunch of senior leadership, and we had a bunch of young guys."

Schiller, a Geneva High School product, technically was not one of the defense's two returning starters. He started every game in 2009, but was a reserve last season after having knee surgery in the spring. Schiller was impressive this year, leading the Huskies in tackles by a wide margin with 103.

As it turned out, it was the defense that led the way and clinched a second straight MAC West title for the Huskies. Last Friday in DeKalb, the Huskies recorded a safety and a couple of last-minute sacks to secure a narrow 18-12 victory over Eastern Michigan.

The win sent Northern Illinois to the MAC title game against Ohio on Friday at Ford Field in Detroit (6 p.m., ESPN2).

The Huskies are hoping the third time is a charm. In two previous trips to the conference championship, they gave up touchdowns in the final 35 seconds both times, losing to Miami last year and Akron in 2005.

"It's one of those things now where I feel like anything less than a MAC championship is not satisfying," Schiller said. "We had a great season last year. We were beating teams with ease. We got to the MAC championship and lost. I think we got a little bit ahead of ourselves last year. This year, every win has really, really meant something to us."

NIU has won four games by 6 points or less and had some luck along the way, such as Buffalo's missed extra point with 14 seconds left, which gave the Huskies a 31-30 win on Oct. 22.

Otherwise, the team's defensive improvement was vital in a seven-game win streak that closed the regular season. NIU hasn't lost since dropping the conference opener at Central Michigan.

"I'm just proud of those guys for sticking together and believing," first-year NIU coach Dave Doeren said. "It's hard. This defense a year ago was No. 1 in every category. We had nine new faces in there and they stuck together, they believed, and showed a lot of character."

Just getting to Northern Illinois was a challenge for Schiller and it played out like a scene from a movie. His older sister Stephanie attended NIU and he was a regular at Huskie Stadium growing up.

After his senior football season, Schiller was planning to choose between Eastern Illinois, Illinois State and Western Illinois. One day in January, he was in the middle of taking a final in Earth Science when NIU assistant coach John Bond knocked on the classroom door.

"I hadn't been recruited by Northern a whole lot," Schiller recalled. "I thought they had all their scholarships already given out. So when he was there, I was a little confused as to why is this guy here to talk to me.

"My teacher said, 'You have to finish your final. Once you're finished, you can talk to him.' I hurried up and finished the test. Luckily, I passed."

Bond was there to tell him Joe Novak, the NIU coach at the time, was on the phone. It turned out one of their recruits had decommitted and a scholarship opened up.

"When he told me coach Novak was on the phone and I got the news, I was ecstatic," he said. "I committed right on the spot."

Now Schiller is starting next to an old friend, outside linebacker Michael Santacaterina, who was a freshman at Geneva when Schiller was a senior. Despite the age difference, they always got along well.

"I love playing next to Pat," Santacaterina said. "He's one of my good friends. He looks out for me. Even before I got here, we talked all the time, hung out. He's like a brother.

"Outside the field, he's one of the best guys I've been around. I've never seen him be mean to a person. But on the field, he's a run-downhill-through-a-brick-wall kind of guy."

Bursting through a brick wall shouldn't be necessary, but Ohio's offense should provide a strong challenge. The winner plays in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Jan. 8 in Mobile, Ala., against Arkansas State, while the loser is likely headed back to Detroit for the Little Caesar's Bowl against a Big Ten opponent.

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