"Let down" games are a common cliché of college football. The emotional peak that allows you to perform beyond your normal ability one week sometimes drops to a valley of mediocrity that allows a lesser team to sneak up and bite you. After a close tussle with the top team in the land, Alabama avoided the "let down bug" with a 27-17 victory over Kentucky. The Tide won't have long to rest though, as a surprising Northern Illinois team arrives in Tuscaloosa Saturday, looking to knock off their second ranked team this season with a victory over 21st ranked Alabama.
Northern Illinois University sits in DeKalb, Illinois, a town where the 25,000 students enrolled in the university make up over half of the town's population. A member of the Mid-American Conference (West division), NIU finished tied for first in their division last season with a 7-1 conference record. Although division co-champion Toledo got to the MAC championship game by virtue of beating NIU head to head, the Huskies still had an impressive season. They captured a victory versus Wake Forest and narrowly missed upsetting Wisconsin on the way to an 8-4 overall record. Northern Illinois has one MAC championship, taking the title in 1983.
Tide Head Coach Mike Shula commented on the game. "We want to see how we're going to react and see if we can put two wins together back-to-back against a Northern Illinois team that, with Coach (Joe) Novak, started from scratch and has done a great job building their program. They lost in the division championship last year within the last minute. They gave Wisconsin last year all they could handle. This year they beat Maryland. They're 2-0 now."
This will be the first meeting between NIU and Alabama. Against the SEC, the Huskies are 0-8 all time against the SEC, with three of those losses coming against Vanderbilt. They have also fallen to Florida twice and lost to Auburn, Arkansas, and Ole Miss once each. Despite this record, NIU has shown this year that they are not a team to be ignored. The generally unknown Huskies shocked the nation earlier this year as they took down the University of Maryland in overtime. The 20-13 win over the previously 13th ranked Terrapins was then backed up by a 42-17 thrashing of Tennessee Tech, propelling NIU to their first 2-0 start since 1988. The Huskies had the pleasure of an off day last Saturday, so they will bring a spotless record with them to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
After scouting NIU, Alabama's coaches talked about their in-your-face, physical running game. "They come off the ball, they get after you," Shula said. "They're a little bit different from the other teams maybe that we've played who were a little more pass-oriented. These guys want to run the football. They don't try to hide it."
That record won't be the only thing in the Huskies' suitcase however. They're making the trip with a Heisman candidate as well. NIU is touting tailback Michael "The Burner" Turner (6-0, 228, Sr) for the top individual award in college football, and the senior is also on the watch list for the Doak Walker Award, the Walter Camp Award, and the Maxwell Trophy. His 159.6 YPG rushing average last year was second only to Penn State's Larry Johnson, and the senior has racked up 224 yards and 2 touchdowns so far this season.
"He's a guy who's got very good speed and he's a lot bigger than people think," Shula said. "I think he's close to 230 or more. He does a nice job. They do a nice job offensively, and it's geared around Michael. He's a guy that can pound you so to speak, use his size to run over you and he's got speed once he gets on the corner, and he's got quickness to make guys miss and to get the ball in the end zone. Each week we've faced some guys that are dangerous in that at any time they can take it into the end zone. And here's another week."
Other Huskies that are being watched for awards are linebacker Nick Duffy (Butkus Award), center Todd Ghilani (Rimington Trophy, Outland Trophy), kicker Steve Azar (Lou Groza Award), and defensive end Travis Moore (Rotary Lombardi Award).
Northern Illinois head coach Joe Novak has years of experience in the MAC conference. While defensive coordinator at Miami (OH) and later at NIU (1977-1983), Novak helped his teams win 3 MAC championships. He left the MAC from 1977 to 1995 to be the defensive coordinator at Illinois, and later at Indiana, both of the Big 10. His time at Indiana was some of the most prosperous ever for the Hoosiers, as they went to 6 bowl games during Novak's tenure. Novak took over the Huskies in 1996, and has improved upon his initial record of 1-10 almost every year. After a sophomore record of 0-11, the Huskies have gone 2-9, 5-6, 6-5, 6-5, and 8-4 under Novak.
Although "The Burner" has to be the focus of any NIU opponent, you can't ignore junior quarterback Josh Haldi (6-2, 202) either. Haldi finished 2002 with the best touchdown to interception ratio in school history (15 to 6) and already has 5 scores to only 1 pick this season.
So far this season, Haldi's favorite target has been senior wide receiver P.J. Fleck (5-10, 185). Fleck lacks towering height and blistering speed, but as Coach Joe Novak says, "The bottom line is that P.J. is productive." Fleck already has 18 catches this season, 12 more than 2nd leading receiver Dan Sheldon (5-11, 174, Jr).
Sheldon doesn't have to catch passes to hurt opponents, though. Keeping with the NIU nickname tradition, coaches have dubbed Sheldon "The Returner". The junior was the 2002 NCAA punt return champion, averaging a staggering 22.7 yards per return. He also fell only 1 score short of tying the national record of 4 punt return touchdowns in a single season. Sheldon already has 108 punt return yards this year, and is averaging 15.8 per attempt in the young season.
Defensively, it is not surprising that Butkus Award candidate Nick Duffy (6-2, 244, Sr) is the top tackler for the Huskies. Duffy handles the middle for NIU, while the outside is patrolled by sophomore Javan Lee (6-3, 209) and junior Brian Atkinson (6-1, 218). On the defensive line, the Huskies are led by walk-on turned All-MAC end Travis Moore (6-0, 248, Jr). Moore is an excellent pass rusher who already has 2 sacks this season.
In the defensive backfield, Randee Drew (5-8, 180, Sr) has 2 picks this season, but one must think that Tide coaches will try to use his height disadvantage to create a favorable match-up with big play receiver Zach Fletcher. On the other side, Rob Lee (6-1, 190, Jr) sits at corner for the Huskies and also has an interception. NIU has reason to be concerned about their defensive backfield, however, as they were burned twice in their game with Division I-AA Tennessee Tech for two huge plays of 78 and 73 yard passes. In fact, the Golden Eagles finished with a whopping 353 yards through the air. If Tide quarterback Brodie Croyle can keep the ball out of the hand of Drew and Lee, Bama's aerial attack could have a good day.
As mentioned earlier, you don't want to get in a field goal kicking contest with Groza Award candidate Steve Azar (5-7, 193, Sr). Azar has been up for the Groza award two other times and is the leading active MAC scorer with 290 career points. He is 2-4 on field goals this season and is 8-8 on extra points. Sheldon, Drew, and Turner handle kick return duties for the Huskies. Punter Anthony Gallagher (5-11, 208, Sr) is averaging 41-7 yards per punt this season, and has sat 5 of his 15 punts this season inside the 20.
Northern Illinois has proved this year that they can play with, and defeat, the big boys. Their victory over Maryland, however, could serve as a wake up call to let the Crimson Tide know that they can't overlook this non-conference battle. With a Heisman candidate in the backfield for NIU, a shaky Husky secondary, and a talented young arm taking snaps for the Tide, big plays will probably be the theme of the day.