Northern Illinois Relishes Shot At No. 1 OSU

We take an in-depth look at the recent success of the Northern Illinois program. The Huskies visit No. 1-ranked Ohio State Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC) for the season opener. We look at how coach Joe Novak has lifted this program up and also delve into NIU's key personnel. We also have a ton of notes on OSU's opener. Click here for more.

The recent success Northern Illinois and coach Joe Novak have enjoyed make top-ranked Ohio State's season opener on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC regional telecast) somewhat of a dicey proposition.

Novak, a Mentor, Ohio, native and a graduate of Miami (Ohio), has resurrected a once-moribund program and made NIU a perennial contender in the Mid-American Conference's West Division. In fact, the Huskies have won MAC divisional titles in four of the last five years.

Novak said his team is looking forward to opening the season against a team as highly regarded as Ohio State.

"Any MAC team that has a chance to go in and play a BCS team – particularly a Big Ten team, because we're all in Big Ten territory – it is a great experience for us," he said. "These kids that play in the MAC all think they should have been recruited by Notre Dame or Michigan or Ohio State.

"Our league has gotten more exposure over the last few years. For us to have a chance to compete against a team like Ohio State or Michigan last year, what a great opportunity it is for us and our fans. This game is a game our kids will remember for the rest of their lives."

Novak was asked how he would approach a game against a team judged as the nation's best.

"We like to approach it the same way every week," he said. "A game like this – against the No. 1 team in the country in a great venue like Ohio Stadium – certainly it's special. But we need to be careful. Whether we win it or lose it, it's just one game. We have a big game in our conference the following week against Ohio U.

"This is a great opportunity and we will see if we're good enough to hang in there and compete."

NIU had not had a winning season in five years when Novak, then an Indiana assistant for Bill Mallory, took the head coaching job in 1996. His first team went 1-10 and his second team – playing in the MAC for the first time since 1985 – was 0-11.

But Novak stayed the course and gradually lifted the Huskies to .500 and beyond. NIU went 6-5 and shared the MAC West title in 2001. The Huskies then went 8-4 and won the division again in 2002.

The breakthrough year came in 2003, when NIU went 10-2. The Huskies opened that year with seven straight wins. That included a five-week stretch where NIU downed Maryland (20-13), won at Alabama (19-16) and also defeated Iowa State (24-16). The Huskies won MAC division titles the last two years, capping a run of six straight winning seasons.

"This is my 11th year here," Novak said. "When I started here, we were awful. We didn't want to play anybody. As we have gotten a little bit better, I think it's been two things. One, we're always going to play some Big Ten teams. Everybody in our league does. One of the reasons is the money and that guarantee is important to us.

"Our league has been strong the last five or six years. We want to play games like this to add some prestige and let people know we play pretty good football. The only way we can get to that is to play some good BCS teams and win some of those games. Three years ago, we went down to Alabama. We beat Maryland here in our stadium when they were ranked 13th in the country.

"This game with Ohio State will be on ABC to half the country. That is great for our school. We think that advertises what we're doing here at Northern and you can't put a price on that kind of exposure."

Novak said NIU's success has caused some schools in BCS conference to shy away from scheduling the Huskies.

"We are having trouble playing BCS teams, honestly, after the success we've had," he said. "The ones that will play us now are Michigan and Ohio State. We play Iowa as well later this year. Next year, we're playing Tennessee. We can't get just anybody to play us."

Novak said he reflects on his Ohio roots in leading the NIU program.

"I think a lot of what we're about goes back to Woody Hayes," Novak said. "I worked for Bill Mallory, who worked for Woody. I worked for Dick Crum, who worked for Bill Mallory. I worked for Gary Moeller, who played for Woody.

"I am from Ohio and so much of what I have seen and been influenced by and the people around me have been Woody Hayes disciples. I think it's a toughness, character people, working hard, nothing fancy – all of that goes back to Woody and his philosophy. That's how we have tried to build this program."

The only thing that has eluded NIU in this recent run is a MAC title. They appeared to have it locked up last Dec. 1, but Akron threw a 36-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left to pull out a 31-30 win in the MAC championship game. The loss denied the Huskies a second straight postseason appearance and left them at 7-5 on the year.

Plenty Of Offense

Northern Illinois welcomes back five returning starters on offense. Three of them are among the best in the MAC – if not the Midwest – at their position. That group includes quarterback Phil Horvath, tailback Garrett Wolfe and offensive tackle Doug Free.

Horvath (6-3, 197), a senior, had to win a battle in preseason camp with sophomore Dan Nicholson. Horvath has played in 16 games over the last two years with 12 starts. He started the first nine games last year before suffering a season-ending broken arm against Central Michigan on Nov. 5.

Horvath led NCAA Division I-A passers in completion percentage at 70.6 percent (168 of 238). He threw for 2,001 yards with 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions.

"Honestly, it could have been either one of them," Novak said of the quarterback battle. "They are a little bit different, but they are both capable. We've won with both of them. It's hard to pick one and we did. It was that close. The team and coaches think we can win with either of them under center."

Likewise, Wolfe is also a pace setter. The 5-7, 177-pound senior was second in Division I-A last year with 175.6 yards per game in rushing. He also played in only nine games, but still amassed 1,656 yards and 18 touchdowns on 256 carries.

Wolfe has 14 career 100-yard games, including 148 yards last year against Michigan, 245 against Northwestern and a career-high 320 against Eastern Michigan in 2004.

"I'm excited about the potential we have at that running back position," Novak said. "I'd like to get situations where we can get Garrett out of there a little bit. Twelve games is a long season, I know this, when he carries it 40 times a game, that's a lot for anybody, but like I said, when it's crunch time, No. 1 will get it, I can promise you that.

"Pound for pound, Garrett is as good as anybody in the country. He has a feel for the game. What separates him from other backs is his great instinctive running. You'd swear he has eyes in the back of his head."

Wolfe is NIU's latest standout at tailback. The school has had one player rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of the last seven years. Most notable in that group was Michael Turner, who hit the 1,000-yard mark in 2002-03.

The other marquee name is 6-7, 312-pound offensive tackle Doug Free. He has started all 36 games of his college career and is considered by some as a preseason All-American.

"Doug has the talent to play on Sundays," Novak said. "He can really run. You just don't see many offensive linemen that can run at that size like he can. He's special."

Also back on the line is sophomore right tackle Jon Brost (6-6, 296).

The Huskies lost their top two receivers from a year ago, although sophomore Britt Davis (6-2, 195) enjoyed a fine debut season with 42 catches for 441 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Jake Nordin had 26 catches a year ago.

Getting Defensive

NIU welcomes back seven starters on defense. That group includes senior Ken West (6-1, 243) and sophomore Larry English (6-3, 236) at defensive end. West has started 19 games over the past two years and tallied 55 tackles and three sacks a year ago.

Two linebackers return: Senior outside linebacker Keenan Blalark (5-10, 228) and sophomore middle linebacker Tim McCarthy (6-0, 235). McCarthy had 101 tackles a year ago, while Blalark tallied 95.

"We've definitely have some athletes at linebacker," Novak said.

Three senior starters are back in the secondary, include free safety Dustin Utschig and cornerbacks Alvah Hansbro and Adriel Hansbro. The 5-10, 196-pound Utschig led NIU with 121 tackles and three interceptions.

The Huskies were second in the MAC in scoring defense last year at 22.8 points per game.

"That indicates we were doing something right," Novak said. "At times, though, we were inconsistent on defense. We must upgrade the athletic ability we have on defense. We have to make tackles and plays in the open field."

In the special teams, kicker Chris Nendick and punter Andy Dittbenner return. Nendick was 9 of 13 on field goals last year, while Dittbenner averaged 38.6 yards per punt.

Also Notable

* Saturday's game marks the beginning of the 117th year of Ohio State football.

Ohio State is 100-12-4 all-time in season opening games. OSU has won six straight season openers dating to a 1999 loss to Miami (Fla.) in the Kickoff Classic.

* Ohio State is opening its 85th season in Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes have a mark of 76-6-2 all-time in home openers in the Horseshoe. OSU has won 27 straight home openers dating to a 1978 loss to Penn State.

* OSU holds a 20-1 all-time mark against Mid-American Conference opponents. The Buckeyes did not play any MAC opponents in the years between 1912-91 until a 1992 game against Bowling Green.

OSU has played one MAC opponent each year since 1997. This marks the first time in recent years that OSU will play two MAC teams. (Bowling Green visits on Oct. 7.)

The only loss to a MAC school came in 1894 at Akron (12-6).

OSU has won the 10 most recent games against MAC opponents by an average score of 34-13. Two of these recent games have been decided by a touchdown or less – 2003 against Bowling Green (24-17) and 2004 against Marshall (24-21). Marshall has since moved on to Conference USA.

* Ohio State is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll during the regular season for the first time since November 1998. OSU finished the 2002 season No. 1 after defeating then-No. 1 Miami (Fla.) in the Fiesta Bowl.

Ohio State has an all-time record of 53-9-1 as the No. 1 team. OSU has been No. 1 in the first poll of the season six times previously. (In some years, the first poll was taken early in the season or at midseason.) Only Oklahoma, with nine first poll No. 1 placements, has more.

* OSU has won 39 of its last 40 home nonconference games dating to a 1990 loss to USC. A string of 37 straight home nonconference wins was snapped last year's loss to Texas.

* Former OSU captain Ahmed Plummer, now serving as a voluntary conditioning coach, will be the honorary captain for this game.

* The 1996 Rose Bowl championship team will be honored at halftime.

* This is also Alumni Band Day with the quad Script Ohio formation expected to close the halftime show.

* NIU will start 11 of its 15 seniors against Ohio State. All 15 of those seniors are fifth-year players.

* Brothers will be on opposite sides in this game as NIU assistant coach John Hauser will oppose his brother, Chris Hauser, who is a defensive graduate assistant for the Buckeyes. Former NIU wide receiver P.J. Fleck is OSU's offensive graduate assistant.

* NIU was picked by the MAC media to win the conference title game. NIU had the first-place vote on 37 of the 50 votes cast. Toledo was next in voting in the MAC West.

* NIU has appeared on ESPN a handful of times in bowl appearances and as part of the MAC package. This marks the school's second-ever appearance on ABC following last year's season opener at Michigan.

* Click the link below for our Game Data page with pertinent information, depth charts and a prediction on Saturday's game.

NIU-OSU Game Data

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