KALAMAZOO, Mich. – For weeks, Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill had been asked how his football team would avoid the let down. And for weeks, Kill gave his cookie-cutter cliché: “We just have to take it one game at a time.”
And for weeks, Kill was confident his veteran-led team wouldn’t get caught looking ahead – until Saturday.
Kill admitted after-the-fact that Saturday’s game at Western Michigan “worried” him, that his team’s focus would stray to a Nov. 9 home date with fellow Mid-American Conference leader Toledo. But the Huskies (7-2, 5-0 MAC West) took care of business against the Broncos in a 28-21, come-from-behind win, setting up a long-anticipated, nationally televised matchup with the Rockets (6-3, 5-0 MAC West).
“There’s no question it’s a big game,” Kill said, “but so are the last two (against 2-7 Ball State and 1-8 Eastern Michigan). Right now, we’re going to enjoy this win. It’s a huge win.”
NIU’s victory essentially knocked the Broncos (3-5, 2-2) out of the MAC West Division race as the Huskies claimed a two-game lead over WMU, plus the tiebreaker. The winner of the NIU-Toledo matchup will take a one-game lead in the MAC West standings, own the tiebreaker and have the inside track to the MAC Championship game.
“We just can’t wait to get home and start getting prepared,” said NIU senior running back Chad Spann, who rushed for 146 yards against WMU to give him an even 1,000 for the season. “We know it’s going to be a huge game. They have aspirations for the MAC title game just like we do. They’re the team in our way right now, so we have to go out there and do it. It’s not going to be a lot of playing around. It’s going to be a lot of focus this week.”
The schedule gives both the Huskies and Rockets, who defeated Eastern Michigan (1-8, 1-4 MAC West) 42-7 on Saturday, three extra days of rest and preparation for the 6 p.m. Nov. 9 kickoff at Huskie Stadium, to be televised on ESPN2.
Spann said he thinks NIU could use the extra breather after nine weeks without a bye. The players also can use the extra time to collect themselves before playing the biggest regular-season game of their careers.
At least, Kill won’t have to worry about his team looking past its next opponent.
“This is something we’ve expected since we’ve been here the last three years,” said junior quarterback Chandler Harnish, who passed for two touchdowns and ran for another against WMU. “To actually see that is a great feeling. Confidence is high right now and we just have to keep rolling.”