Northern Illinois lacks the massive bodies that come with the territory in the SEC West. For instance, the Huskies don't intimidate with length or mass on either side of the ball like Arkansas.
But when NIU travels to the Ozarks for a 6 p.m. Saturday game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, head coach Rod Carey will know that his team won't back down from the challenge of playing a big, nasty physical SEC team. They relish the opportunity.
In fact, the Huskies – on a smaller stage in the Mid-American Conference – resemble closely what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema is trying to establish in the SEC, power running with a heavy dose of fantastic offensive line play. It's a system that breeds toughens both sides of the ball, exactly what they didn't have on the home side of the field last week in Lubbock. NIU will bring toughness and confidence that a 17-game road winning streak builds.
“They are licking their chops to get here,” said Sam Pittman, the Arkansas offensive line coach and the best man to comment on what's happened in DeKalb, Ill., over the last decade. “They think they are good again and I know all about Northern Illinois.”
Pittman served two tour of duties at NIU. First, there was a two-year stint in 1994-95 when the Huskies lost to Arkansas in the only prior meeting. He was back again in 2003-06, and was coaching the O-line when they won in Tuscaloosa exactly 11 years ago Saturday.
“They have confidence that they can play with us,” Pittman said. “And, it's not fake. They are physical and they can run on defense and you have to block them. It's hard to block them for a long time.”
Pittman was talking about the NIU defense, short but physical. The three linebackers, the stars of the unit, all stand just 6-0. Two in the secondary are listed at 5-9. None of the front four are taller than 6-2. There are 13 on the defensive two-deep 6-0 or shorter.
Yes, the Hogs are going to tower over this defense, as you'd expect an SEC West team against a MAC team. They know there is no way to measure the Huskies' heart.
Pittman has watched only the NIU defensive tape, but he didn't have to see anything of the other side of the ball to know what UA defensive coordinator Robb Smith is facing this week. It will be a great offensive line.
“Robb has told me,” Pittman said. “I already knew. Rod Carey is an O-line guy. I coached under Joe Novak at NIU, too. He was an O-line guy, too. They do take pride in their offensive line.”
Carey coached offensive line and coordinated the unit for three years under Dave Doeren, now head coach at North Carolina State. Before that, Carey coached the O-line at North Dakota, churning out all-stars. Before that he sent three Illinois State offensive linemen to the pro ranks. He's had four All-America O-linemen at NIU.
The fruit of Carey's labor is the 2014 NIU offensive line, with four returning starters. That group has a collective 111 starts. Guard Aidan Conlon and center Andrew Ness have rarely missed a play over the last 30 games.
The Huskies average 352 on the ground and feature an improved passing attack with quarterback Drew Hare. Tailback Cameron Stingily, listed as the backup to 5-7 scatback Akeem Daniels, is a brute at 6-1, 235. Stingily missed last season, but is a force behind that experienced O-line.
“I have a lot of respect for what they do in the offensive line,” Pittman said. “They are very talented and know what to do.”
Defensively, it won't be like last week. Pittman sees two physical 300-pounders in the interior of the NIU defensive line and a nice rotation at defensive end that can play the run and rush the passer.
“They have a wonderful pass rusher in Jason Meehan,” said Pittman of NIU's senior end. “He can play inside or outside, and he has a nice inside move.”
There's respect for the combo at the other end, Perez Ford (228) and Ladell Fleming (224).
“They are both really good players,” Pittman said. “The linebackers play downhill. I assume they are going to stack the box, but when they don't, I assume they will blitz the box.”
There's been some talk in the UA staff meetings about the last NIU trip to the Ozarks. It was the next-to-last game of the 1994 season.
“Barry Lunney ripped our hearts out with a sneak midway through the fourth quarter,” Pittman said. “We thought we had them. I'd forgotten that it was Barry. He reminded me.”
Lunney denies that. He said Pittman brought it up first this week.
“That has come up,” Lunney said. “Sam mentioned it. No one forgets anything. I remember that was kind of the game we got some things going for 1995. We threw it around a little. I think Madre Hill had some nice runs.
“That was 20 years ago and now Sam and I are pulling on the same rope. It's all good fun in the staff meetings.”
The fun will be in competing against a like mindset Saturday night. Physicality will be the key word on both sidelines.
“They play with an edge, a chip on their shoulder,” Lunney said. “Their guys won't flinch. They have confidence.”
There's some confidence on the Arkansas side, but Lunney reminds that the Hogs are not far removed from a 10-game losing streak. On the other side, NIU has 49 victories since 2010. Only Oregon (50) has more. The Huskies are even with Alabama and ahead of Stanford (48), Boise State (47) and LSU (47).
“There are daily reminders,” Lunney said. “I think we have a pretty wise team. And, we know what kind of team is coming in here. If you've been around college football at all over the last few years, you know who they are. It will be a battle for four quarters. We expect nothing less.”
The back slapping from tormenting Tech's defense with run after run was over Saturday night when the Hogs got off the plane.
“Everyone knows about NIU,” said Brandon Allen, the Arkansas quarterback. “We got back to business. No one is being distracted. They have our focus. We eliminate distractions.”
Bielema said Wednesday on the SEC Teleconference that the Hogs respect all but fear none. All in the Arkansas camp know there will be no fear from the Huskies.
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