Tough times on defense do not necessarily mean trouble for Northern Illinois.
Two years ago, when the Huskies won their first Mid-American Conference title and beat Arkansas State in the Godaddy.com Bowl, they allowed an average of 30.3 points per game. Early that season, NIU lost to Kansas 45-42, Central Michigan 48-41, and later beat Toledo by the ridiculous score of 63-60.
So giving up 35 points to Idaho and 39 to Eastern Illinois the last two weeks created only mild concern for coach Rod Carey.
"Idaho, we had seen 20 percent of their offense by the time we played them," Carey said after the win over EIU. "So they come out and showed us the rest. They caught us on some things. We adjusted, shut them down."
Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo torched the Huskies for 450 passing yards and 6 touchdowns on Saturday, but he does that to most opponents.
"This guy comes in here -- guys, he's going to playing on Sundays. He made some throws in that first quarter that were out of sight," Carey said of Garoppolo, predicting an NFL future for the Rolling Meadows product. "We made some good adjustments to go ahead and shut him down.
"So I'm really pleased with the defense from an adjustment standpoint and being opportunistic. I'd like a faster start from them, I'd like all those things. But overall, given the circumstances, I'm pleased at this point. But we have some work to do, obviously."
Throw in the 30-27 victory at Iowa in Week 1 and the Huskies have allowed 33.7 points and 491 yards of offense per game. Northern Illinois will try to go 2-for-2 against the Big Ten when it visits Purdue on Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN2).
NIU returned five starters on defense this season. It brought back some experience in the secondary with senior safety Jimmie Ward and sophomore corner Marlon Moore. On the front line, the Huskies lost pass rush specialists Alan Baxter and Sean Progar.
They've been able to recreate the pass rush, though, piling up 14 sacks the last two weeks. Nine different players accounted for those sacks, and sophomore Perez Ford from Romeoville holds the team lead with 3.5.
"We had to slow down (Eastern Illinois') run first. That was the first thing we had to do," Carey said. "You've got to get a player of that caliber in situations where you know he's got to throw, so you can kind of get after him some."
Before Saturday's game, NIU announced sophomore linebacker Rasheen Lemon had been suspended indefinitely. That brought junior Michael Santacaterina (Geneva) into the lineup and he responded with 15 tackles against Eastern.
"There's a lot of room for improvement on the defensive side," Santacaterina said. "We're giving up too many yards and it all starts with stopping the run first and foremost. I think when we stop the run, make them one-dimensional, we have good pass rushers up front."
NIU fell behind 20-0 in the first quarter against Eastern, a week after trailing Idaho 28-14 in the second quarter.
The slow starts and soft defense are problems to correct, but Northern Illinois has found different ways to win during the last three seasons of unprecedented success. The victory over EIU was the 22nd in a row at Huskie Stadium.
"Coach, I love his quote, 'Finish the fight,'" Ward said. "Going into practice Tuesday, I think we need to start the fight … and then finish the fight."