Know Thy Opponent 2013: Northern Illinois Huskies

Chris Trotman

Purdue plays three-straight teams that played in BCS Bowls in 2012.

MAC teams are a staple on the early season Big Ten schedule. Lying almost entirely in the footprint of the Big Ten and with approximately 47 schools from Ohio, the conference makes natural sense as early non-conference opponents. They are just good enough to push teams, at least more than an FCS opponent, but more often than not it results in a comfortable win for the Big Ten team. The Big Ten team is often tested for a half or even three quarters before pulling away late.

Every year at least one MAC team seems to bite a Big Ten team. Last year Ohio got Penn State, Central Michigan got Iowa, and Ball State got Indiana to name just a few. There are plenty of prime targets for the MAC to rise up and get another Big Ten scalp this season as well:

August 31 Northern Illinois at Iowa

August 31 Western Michigan at Michigan State

September 14 Bowling Green at Indiana

September 21 Kent State at Penn State

We fall into the last of the five most likely chances a MAC team beats a Big Ten team, and it may be the best chance the MAC. Purdue is coming in with a ton of question marks, while Northern Illinois broke ground as the first MAC team to ever make a BCS Bowl (and first non-AQ team to get in with a regular season loss). They return an excellent quarterback and they have a stingy defense, making them dangerous even before you factor in their new coach.

This is not your typical MAC fodder. This is a legit top 25 team that could potentially bust the BCS again.

2012 Record: 12-2, 8-0 (MAC Champions)

Bowl Result: Lost to Florida State 31-10 in Orange Bowl

Blog Representation: Red & Black Attack

Series With Purdue: Northern Illinois leads 1-0

Last Northern Illinois win: 9/19/2009 at Purdue 28-21

Last Season for the Huskies:

Many of us remember the last (and only) time Purdue played Northern Illinois. The Huskies came to West Lafayette a week after Danny Hope's young team shocked many by coming within two points of an upset at Oregon. There were high hopes, then Chandler Harnish happened. Aaron Valentin had a punt return for a touchdown to give Purdue a 7-0 lead, but the defense followed by giving up two straight TD drives. The second of two straight fumbled punts by Valentin set up a third second quarter touchdown to make it 21-7 at halftime.

Purdue was stopped on 4th and 1 at the NIU 28 early in the third quarter and gave up a 72-yard TD drive before the offense finally woke up down 28-7. Joey Elliott had TD runs of 58 and 6 yards to make it 28-21 with 5:42 left and Purdue appeared to have them stopped for a potential tying drive, but a fake punt allowed NIU to run the clock down to 25 seconds and seal the win.

That victory broke a 21-year losing streak for NIU against the Big Ten as they were 1-32-1 coming in. They haven't exactly lit the Big Ten on fire since, but they did beat Minnesota in 2010 and Kansas in 2012 for major conference wins. The last three seasons they have gone 34-8 with two MAC titles, an appearance in the MAC title game all three years, and two bowl wins.

This is a very, very good team even after losing Jerry Kill to Minnesota and Dave Doeren to NC State. Doeren was mentioned as a target for our own vacancy last December before we hired Darrell Hazell, NIU's opponent coach in the last MAC title game.

The 34-8 record may be daunting, but NIU has still struggled to beat major conference competition. Minnesota was 3-9 the year they lost to NIU and fired their coach. Kansas was 1-11 last year with hardly any defense to speak of but only lost 30-23 to NIU. Iowa was 4-8 and edged out an 18-17 win as NIU's only regular season loss in 2012. Six of the eight losses in the last three years have been to BCS conference opposition in Iowa State, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, and Florida State. The Orange Bowl, despite the final score, was still a 17-10 going game into the final quarter as the best team NIU has faced recently.

Northern Illinois Offense:

The 2013 season will be the Jordan Lynch show, and any fledgling Heisman campaign the senior quarterback has will be built on the two games against BCS conference teams in Iowa and Purdue. Lynch was brilliant last year and deserves all the praise he has gotten. In his first full year as a starter after replacing Harnish (who is now with the Colts). He threw for 3,138 yards and 25 touchdowns against only six interceptions. He also rushed for an astounding 1,815 yards and 19 touchdowns. Only Montee Ball, Stephon Jefferosn and Ka'Deem Carey ran for more yards and they were all running backs.

To put it into perspective, Johnny Manziel won the Heisman last year as a dual threat QB and he ran for 405 fewer yards. Lynch rushed for over 100 yards in all but two games (Florida State and Tennessee-Martin). Iowa did the best at defending his passing with only 54 yards given up, but he had a season low 16 attempts.

Despite the gaudy stats, Lynch is not a mad bomber of a passer. He only threw for over 300 yards in a game twice last year. He is an incredibly dangerous runner, however. Leighton Settle (453 yards, 5 TDs) and Akeem Daniels (447 yards and 9 TDs) provided some help out of the backfield, but for the most part this offense focuses on Lynch.

The loss of 1,000 yard receiver Martel Moore will pose a challenge in the passing game. He is currently getting a look from the Falcons after catching 75 passes for 1,083 yards and 13 TDs. That leaves Tommylee Lewis (48-539-5), at just 5'7" as the top returning receiver. Daniels (20-259-2) was adept at catching passes out of the backfield, but the receivers will need find someone to replace Moore.

Northern Illinois Defense:

While the offense was potent at 38.6 points per game, the defense was sneaky good at 19.9 points per game. As a unit they sacks opposing quarterbacks 40 times, which was nearly three times per game. Fortunately, many of those sacks are gone as Alan Baxter and Sean Progar are gone after combining for 18 sacks. Joe Windsor, who had seven sacks and 36 tackles from his defensive end position returns as a solid pass rush threat.

Safety Jimmie Ward comes back as the leader of the defense with 104 tackles and three interceptions. He was excellent at protecting the middle of the field in the passing game. Linebacker Jamaal Bass will be a solid, experienced linebacker that has been a two-year starter to this point and had 83 tackles and an interception last year.

It is hard to say what new coach Rod Carey will try to do defensively. Northern Illinois was very much a swarming defense last season with over 100 takcles for loss to go with the 40 sacks. They also picked off 15 passes and recovered 12 fumbles, giving NIU a +7 turnover differential. He was primarily an offensive line coach on staff the last two seasons and he has a special connection in this game since he is a graduate of Indiana. Carey was a three-year starter at Indiana at center, where the Hoosiers went 20-14-1 in that time and played in two bowl games.

The NIU defense lost some key pieces and does not have a lot of time to replace them. The Huskies have five road games in their first seven with a long road trip to Idaho in there too. The MAC is still their main focus, but after playing in the Orange Bowl and with winnable games against Purdue and Iowa as their only two BCS conference opponents this will be a key game for them.

Northern Illinois Special Teams:

Matthew Sims gives them a solid placekicker and an edge over our up and down rotation of Sam McCartney and Paul Griggs. He was 15 of 19 last season with only two misses inside 40 yards and a long of 54 yards. As a senior, NIU has complete confidence in him if it comes down to a field goal. He connected on the game-winner as time expired to win the 2011 MAC Championship.

The punting game needs to be figured out, but it should be noted that Lynch, in his 'do everything' role, punted twice for a 57.5 yard average last year, including a long of 63 yards.

In the kick return game Tommylee Lewis is a danger after he had an average of 24.5 yards and a 93 yard return for a score. He also was good on punt returns with a 15.8 yard average, giving them an edge because I think the last time Purdue had a great punt return was Valentin's TD in 2009.

Game Outlook:

This could be a critical game for both teams. Northern Illinois has dreams of an unbeaten season and return to the BCS with a quarterback that is a fringe Heisman candidate. Put Lynch at any BCS school and he is a front-runner for the award. They cannot get either without getting Purdue as their marquee win to give them two over Big Ten teams.

For Purdue, the Boilers are in a transition from an awful coaching staff to a competent one that still made consecutive bowl games. If Purdue is going to reach a bowl game in 2013 this could be a must-win. I expect wins over the four I's on the schedule (Indiana State, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana), meaning two wins need to be found elsewhere. Given the tough starting slate Purdue easily could be 1-3 coming into this game and that could extend to 1-7 before a much easier finishing kick against the three I's in the Big Ten and a depleted Penn State team. That makes this game huge.

Purdue has done an admirable job against mobile quarterbacks in the past. You would think Braxton Miller would go crazy against us, but Purdue kept him in check for the most part. Like when we play Ohio State we have to realize that Lynch running is the first option on most every play. Ricardo Allen has to lead the secondary to take away their under-sized receivers and the linebackers must stay home in the middle to protect against the run.

As an added bonus, Lynch's worst game on the ground came last year in the Orange Bowl where he had only 44 yards on 23 attempts. The braintrust behind the defense that stopped him just happens to be Greg Hudson, our new defensive coordinator. He was the linebackers coach at FSU and helped design the defense that contained Lynch all night in Miami. That experience will be huge in this game.

Prediction:

It is tough to call this one. NIU was 12-2 last year and played in a BCS bowl, but it lost to an awful Iowa team and barely beat Army and Kansas, who were far, far worse that Purdue. The two common opponents were Iowa and Eastern Michigan. Both teams easily handled EMU while Purdue beat Iowa on a last second field goal. That tells me the teams were nearly even. I want to avoid the Danny Hope-ism of saying, "But we'd be a BCS team in the MAC!" but I couldn't avoid his voice in my head saying that.

Ultimately, I think Purdue needs this game. Hazell and Hudson both saw Lynch late last season and did well against him. Hazell has better athletes on defense than he had at Kent State and Hudson has the schemes. They need to hold NIU under 30 points, as the Huskies were 12-0 scoring 30 or more last year and 0-2 when they did not.

I think Purdue does just that, barely. Purdue 30, Northern Illinois 28

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