Against an offense built on a solid running game, John Skladany's defense allowed just 85 yards on the ground in 44 attempts. This after surrendering 36 yards in 32 rushes against Northern Iowa.
The progress of this unit was no more evident than Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, where the Cyclones dominated the trenches against an offense that has grown accustomed to having the upper hand. It's remarkable for a group that lost rush end Jason Berryman in the days leading up to the start of training camp, and was without starting defensive tackle Brent Curvey and end Cephus Johnson for a majority of the game.
"I did not expect them to be this dominant, with the guys that have been out of the lineup," said head coach Dan McCarney during his weekly Tuesday press conference. "If everybody was here, then I would have thought we could. But we have had to start pulling guys out of there, so I think they've gone a little beyond what I thought they could through two games.
"It's a great start, and I think it's the best since 1958 in a two-game matchup. Those are good backs, good offenses, and teams that won 10 games last year. I think we're better at linebacker. When you take Berryman out before the season started, and then Cephus and Curvey out the other day, those are three of your best four defensive linemen. Yet we're still playing pretty good defense and rush defense."
A lot of the Cyclones' improvement comes with more confidence and experience, but the emergence of some newcomers like JUCO transfer Tim Dobbins at MIKE linebacker have juiced up the defensive front.
"Our defense came out of last year knowing that, even though it was a disappointing season, there were a lot of times where we played good defense," McCarney said. "If we had any kind of support from our offense and special teams, we would have had a chance in some more games.
"We didn't desert what we were doing. I didn't fire my defensive coordinator. I believe in John (Skladany) and what we're doing. Then all of a sudden we're leading the league in a number of defensive categories. It takes talent, ability, a good scheme, a staff that knows what it's doing, and then some guys that can come in and play. Dobbins has clearly helped our rush defense and defense overall."
The stout play of interior linemen Curvey and Nick Leaders has been especially important. The two have drawn comparisons to the former tandem of James Reed and Ryan Harklau, who helped lead the Cyclones to the Insight.com Bowl in 2000. The edge of the defense is being anchored by veteran Tyson Smith, the team's defensive MVP in each of the first two weeks.
Yet the added depth of the line is apparent, too. Tim TeBrink spelled Curvey after the sophomore left the Iowa game with a shoulder injury. Shawn Moorehead has been a pleasant surprise as a redshirt freshman defensive end.
"Nick Leaders is really outstanding," McCarney said. "Curvey played real well until he got hurt, and then Tim TeBrink stepped in and played well. Tyson Smith has played really well. We've been able to play a few more guys and have more depth."
No longer ‘burning' but cooking
The Huskies lost veteran tailback Michael "The Burner" Turner to the NFL, but the ground game has picked up right where it left off. Junior tailback A.J. Harris made a name for himself last weekend against Southern Illinois by rushing for 139. The former understudy to Turner, Harris has earned the nickname of "Afterburner."
"I think he's very similar (to Michael Turner) in a lot of ways," McCarney said. "He's big, fast, tough, and gets a lot of yards after contact. He's an excellent running back. He's 19th in the country right now after two games, and that's going against two teams that won a bunch of games last year. I see a lot of similarities. He makes guys miss."
NIU's offense remains an efficient group overall, because of the smart play of quarterbacks Phil Horvath and Josh Haldi. Horvath came in for injured returning starter Haldi on the fourth play of the Maryland game.
The sophomore nearly pulled off the upset in College Park, then helped key the victory over Southern Illinois, the top-ranked team in Division I-AA. He has completed 30-of-58 passes for 367 yards and two touchdowns through two games. Horvath is being listed as the starter in the Huskies' depth chart, while Haldi doesn't appear due to injury. But regardless of who takes the field Saturday, McCarney knows what to expect.
"We don't see any difference between the two," ISU's head coach said. "They're going to feature the same things. They're a real good rush offense and can throw from the pocket or outside. They're great in ball security, and had one of the top turnover-margin offenses in the country. It's hard to get the ball from them. We have really looked at that and addressed it, knowing that we can see either one of the quarterbacks.
"When (Haldi) was in the game for the first three snaps of the Maryland game, they came out and started doing the things they always do. Nothing changed when Horvath got in there and started quarterbacking. Now he's got two games under his belt. This time of year there are no rookies. They don't have a rookie, they have a veteran that's played two games."
In search of better execution
Three days after watching his offense miss numerous opportunities to win a game against intrastate rival Iowa, McCarney said his team needs to improve against NIU. Rookie kicker Brian Jansen made just 1-of-4 field goal attempts, while the Cyclone offense reached the end zone just once.
"We're real disappointed, because we had some good drives the other day when we came away with nothing," McCarney said. "We not only didn't get in the end zone, but didn't get the points on the board with our field goals. That's really important. We've got to really improve on that.
"And in a tight, defensive game like the other day, they turned it over once and we don't turn it over at all. You've got to convert when you get down there. It's not always going to be touchdowns, and that's why Brian or Tony Yelk, whoever's on the field, has to do a better job. We can't go 1-for-4 and expect to win many close games."