DeKALB – You don’t have to remember too far back to know Central Michigan was a Mid-American Conference powerhouse.
From 2006-09, the Chippewas made four consecutive bowl appearances and won the MAC three times. However, because of that success, Central Michigan became essentially a coaching feeder program for BCS schools, as so many MAC programs are.
After the Chippewas’ 2006 MAC title, coach Brian Kelly left for Cincinnati, and he now is trying to lead Notre Dame back to prominence. His replacement, Butch Jones, ended up replacing Kelly once again when Cincinnati hired him away from Mount Pleasant in 2009.
On came Dan Enos, a former Michigan State quarterback who was an assistant in East Lansing from 2006-09. During Enos’ first two seasons, Central Michigan fell on some hard times, finishing 3-9 in 2010 and 2011.
However, Enos’ team might finally be turning a corner. Central Michigan comes into this afternoon’s contest at Huskie Stadium with a 2-1 record. Last week, the Chippewas claimed an exciting 32-31 win at Iowa, a team NIU lost to in Week 1.
Central Michigan had a young team during Enos’ first two seasons, but the Chippewas returned 18 starters from last season.
Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren said part of the reason the MAC West looks so deep this year is because teams, such as Central Michigan, have played younger players the past few years. The Chippewas also have an experienced quarterback in Ryan Radcliff, who is in his third year as a starter.
“There are some really good teams that have senior quarterbacks, and a lot of these coaches now that are in their third or fourth year in the league came in and played young guys, and now all of those guys are third-year starters in their systems,” Doeren said. “You can see the growth that has taken place on their teams.”
The last time NIU and Central Michigan met, the Huskies went up to Mount Pleasant and were handed a 48-41 loss in their 2011 MAC opener. It was the last time NIU lost a conference game on their way to a MAC championship and a bowl victory.
One thing this year’s Chippewas team does well is run the ball. Junior running back Zurlon Tipton has run for 314 yards and is averaging 7.1 yards a carry.
During last week’s 30-23 win over Kansas, the Huskies had their share of trouble stopping teams out of the wildcat formation, something Central Michigan could show as well.
“It depends on how they feel about studying our game from Saturday, because we had our moments where we struggled in the Kansas game to get that bottled up,” NIU defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said. “If they feel there’s something they can exploit, I’m sure they’re going to feature it.
“Hopefully we’ve got our bugs worked out. Through a good week of practice here, I think we’ve done a good job of getting corrections made, and players understand what they have to do.”
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. Force at least one turnover
Last week, Tyrone Clark and Demetrius Stone dropped interceptions for a Huskie defense that has still yet to force a turnover against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Will this be the week Northern Illinois finally gets a takeaway? Mid-American Conference play won't be too easy if the Huskies aren't able to get those momentum-changing plays.
2. Bottle up Tipton
NIU's defense ranks ninth in the MAC in stopping the run, giving up an average of 216.8 yards per game. The unit will have its hands full with Central Michigan running back Zurlon Tipton, who has run for 314 yards and is averaging a whopping 7.1 yards per carry.
Central Michigan isn't going to beat itself with penalties. In fact, the Chippewas are averaging just 1.33 penalties per game, tops in the nation. NIU has done a good job avoiding penalties as well, averaging 4.5 penalties per game. The Huskies' average of 40 penalty yards per contest ranks third in the MAC.
4. Stop the wildcat
Last week, Kansas' offense was at its best when the Jayhawks used Cris Mathews in the wildcat. Central Michigan could show some of the same formation, and NIU defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said the defense has worked on making corrections when it comes to stopping it.
5. Avoid the trap
Coming off a big win over Kansas, and with a really important game against a very good Ball State team next week, today's home contest has the makings of your usual trap game. With NIU's last conference loss coming last year against Central Michigan, plus the fact the Chippewas beat Iowa – a team the Huskies lost to – don't expect NIU to look past Central Michigan.