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YPSILANTI, Mich. – Northern Illinois has relished the role of frontrunner, winning eight straight games as the favorite at Las Vegas sports books.
While the line has yet to be set for Friday’s Mid-American Conference Championship Game, the Huskies – who have been picked to win by at least a touchdown in their past six games and won by an average of 29.6 points per game over its nine-game winning streak – again will be overwhelming favorites against MAC East Division champion Miami (Ohio).
But the Huskies (10-2, 8-0 MAC) could not care less.
“That’s you guys (the media). You guys can do whatever you want with that,” said NIU defensive end Jake Coffman, the team’s 27-year-old veteran. “We’re just going to play our ball.”
NIU was expected to be here. Miami (8-4, 7-1 MAC) was not.
The Huskies were selected to win the MAC West in a preseason media poll and now carry a national ranking, No. 23 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 24 in the AP Top 25, into Detroit's Ford Field. The RedHawks were picked to finish fifth in the East after a 1-11 campaign in 2009.
But second-year coach Mike Haywood led the country’s biggest turnaround. And while Ohio – which could’ve clinched the East title against Kent State on Friday but lost 28-6 – and Temple stumbled down the stretch, the RedHawks won four straight to end the season with its first MAC East title since 2004.
NIU’s 71-3 rout of Eastern Michigan ended about one hour after Ohio’s loss gave Miami a spot in the MAC title game, and the Huskies didn't seem to care who their next opponent would be.
“Honestly, it really didn’t matter,” NIU wide receiver Willie Clark said. “We’re going to take the next game like it’s the most important game. It just happens to be the MAC Championship. We’re going to do some scouting on Miami (Ohio) and take it like every other week.”
Coffman said he watched the RedHawks on TV a few times this season and came away impressed. NIU coach Jerry Kill said he didn’t know “a thing about” Miami because none of the film studies of previous opponents featured the RedHawks.
But a hard-fought 27-22 win over Miami in Oxford, Ohio, last season gives the Huskies an idea of the resolve of their unlikely opponent.
“They’ve got some talented skill players,” Kill said. “They had them when we were there last year and they play good defense. We had to work on that game to win. Evidently, they’re pretty [darn] good. The bottom line is we have to take care of ourselves and what we do and we got to get ready to play. We haven’t been in this situation in a long time so it’ll be interesting to see how our kids handle it.”
Added Coffman: “They’re a good football team, obviously, and they have a good coaching staff that has turned that program around, so we’re definitely not going to overlook them at all. This is the culmination of our whole season so we’ll definitely be up to play Miami.”