What will NIU do for an encore?
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Northern Illinois had plenty to celebrate last fall after defeating Kent State in double overtime in the Mid-American Conference championship in Detroit. The Huskies are hoping for a return trip this season.
Northern Illinois has a history with streaks.
It wasn't that long ago when the Huskies held the nation's longest losing skid at 23 games. When that one finally ended with a 16-6 win over Central Michigan on Oct. 10, 1998, students not only tore down the goal posts, but carried them roughly a mile from Huskie Stadium and tossed them into the East Lagoon.
That victory set in motion a slow climb under coach Joe Novak to the point where NIU has posted winning records in 10 of the last 12 seasons.
Now the streaks are insanely positive — 21 straight wins at Huskie Stadium, 17 Mid-American Conference victories in a row, three straight MAC West titles, along with the last two MAC title game championships. The run of success culminated in a trip to the Orange Bowl on Jan. 1.
So where do the Huskies go from here, now that they peeled the orange on New Year's Day? Is it all downhill from here?
Not necessarily. NIU returns record-setting quarterback Jordan Lynch and the entire offensive line, including tight ends. There's a chance the Huskies could be even better than last year's team, but those are some deep paw prints to fill.
Remember, those rules designed to make it easier for teams from non-major conferences to make a top bowl remain in place. Here's a look at what needs to work for this to be another glorious season in DeKalb:
No one-man offense:
Senior Jordan Lynch set an NCAA mark for rushing yards by a quarterback with 1,815, breaking the record established by Michigan's Denard Robinson in 2010.
NIU's second-leading rusher (departed senior Leighton Settle) ran for 453 yards. Needless to say, Lynch carried quite a load last season and now that word has spread across the college football landscape, it's unlikely Lynch can continue that pace.
The team's top running back, senior Akeem Daniels, isn't expected to play Saturday at Iowa because he's still recovering from a foot injury, so this plan won't be easy. The starting tailback is listed as Cameron Stingily from Romeoville, who has one career carry. Sophomore Keith Harris (55 carries, 226 yards last fall) figures to share the load.
"Our philosophy still remains the same and it's very, very simple," coach Rod Carey said this week. "Or best players get the ball in their hands. It doesn't matter if we line up two tight ends and two backs. It doesn't matter if we line up with five wide receivers — just get them the ball in space and make plays."
Find a go-to receiver:
Probably a bigger issue than the running game is finding a No. 1 receiver to replace Martell Moore, who accounted for 122 catches for 1,830 yards the past two years.
Big-play return man Tommylee Lewis was the Huskies' second-leading receiver last year with 48 catches, but he's more of a slot receiver at 5-foot-7. Lynch needs a target who can battle defensive backs for the tough catches.
The two clear candidates for this role are De'Ron Brown from Morgan Park and A.J. Sebastiano, both listed at 6-feet, like Moore. There's also 6-4 Canadian Juwan Brescacin in the mix.
Pass rush hides flaws:
The strongest part of the NIU defense the last couple of years has been the pass rush. But the Huskies lost a combined 18 sacks with the graduation of Alan Baxter and Sean Progar.
Fortunately, NIU tried keeping the defensive linemen fresh by using a deep rotation, so there is some experience coming back. The current starters — Ken Bishop, Joe Windsor, George Rainey and Donovan Gordon — combined for 29 tackles for loss last season.
Navigate the schedule:
The Huskies haven't lost a game in DeKalb since Sept. 26, 2009, but start this campaign with four of five games on the road.
Besides opening at Iowa on Saturday, NIU has another Big Ten road trip at Purdue on Sept. 28. In between, the Huskies will visit Idaho, then open MAC play with a title game rematch against Kent State. They also have to play at Toledo on Nov. 20.
During the MAC media days, Ohio was picked as the favorite to win the East division and the Bobcats are not on NIU's regular-season schedule. So there's a break.
When Jerry Kill left NIU for Minnesota in 2010, he basically took the entire coaching staff with him. When Dave Doeren bolted for North Carolina State before the Orange Bowl, the Huskies promoted Carey, who was the team's offensive line coach and offensive coordinator the past two years.
Of Carey's assistants, four are veterans — including both coordinators — and five are new. So there isn't an unfamiliar scheme being taught this fall, which should help.
Change is inevitable when a smaller program has so much success. Athletic director Jeff Compher left DeKalb in the spring, landing a new role at East Carolina.
But the massive indoor practice facility rising on the north end of Huskie Stadium, which Compher, Kill and Doeren helped fund — that's not moving anywhere.
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