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Nitz: Offense no longer question mark

Northern Illinois’ offense was a question mark heading into the season.

Sure, the Huskies scored at will last season, putting up some crazy offensive numbers.

But gone from that group were players like Chandler Harnish, the school’s record-setting quarterback. Wide receiver Nathan Palmer, running back Jasmin Hopkins and basically an entire offensive line weren’t returning as well.

To top it off, starting center Logan Pegram suffered a lower leg fracture during preseason practice, meaning the Huskies’ offensive line had to break in five new starters.

I didn’t expect Jordan Lynch to match Harnish’s 2011 numbers this season, but I figured he’d be fine in his first season as the starter. I did wonder if he would get any blocking or would one of the tailbacks step up.

Both of those questions seem to have been answered. Lynch has erased most of the doubts surrounding his play. Junior Leighton Settle has become the feature back and done a solid job. The offensive line has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and then some.

Even NIU coach Dave Doeren’s.

“I wasn’t really worried about the scheme or the quarterback,” Doeren said during Monday’s Mid-American Conference coaches teleconference. “It was just the O-line continuity and that’s been much better than I thought it would be.”

Through five weeks of play, Doeren’s offensive group is fifth in the MAC when it comes to total offense (444 yards per game) and fourth in scoring offense (35.6 ppg).

The Huskies can run with either Lynch or Settle, and Lynch has also shown he can throw the ball, which some people doubted prior to the season.

Lynch and the rest of the offense have started to earn praise from other coaches in the MAC.

Saturday, Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos got to see what NIU’s offense was all about, and praised the Huskies Monday morning.

“Northern Illinois has very good skill players,” Enos said. “I was very impressed with their backs, their quarterback and their wide receivers.”

This week, Ball State will try to figure out how to stop Lynch and the Huskies’ run game, while worrying about Lynch’s passing ability as well.

Cardinals head coach Pete Lembo said the Huskies haven’t missed a beat with Lynch at quarterback.

“You pack the box too much and they’re able to throw and catch the ball on the outside against man coverage,” Lembo said. “Obviously you play a lot of coverage and then you’ve got issues with all the zone-read and option stuff inside.”

What’s scary is NIU’s offense has just three senior starters – wide receivers Martel Moore and Perez Ashford, and tight end Jason Schepler.

All three have been key this season, especially Moore, who is the Huskies’ leading receiver with 23 catches for 379 yards and five touchdowns. Ashford has also been a nice complement to Moore in the passing game, while Schepler has provided a blocking boost for NIU’s rushing attack.

It’s fun to think about how good this offense could be next season.

But for now, the Huskies will continue trying to light up the scoreboard week after week.

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