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NIU's improved tackling yields better results in 2012

Published: Friday, Nov. 9, 2012 5:30 a.m. CDT
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Rob Winner — rwinner@shawmedia.com Buffalo quarterback Alex Zordich (left) is sacked by Northern Illinois linebacker Michael Santacaterina (52) during the third quarter in DeKalb, Ill., Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012. NIU defeated Buffalo, 45-3.

DeKALB – Sixty points, 589 yards of total offense.

Toledo's offense had its way with Northern Illinois' defense last year at the Glass Bowl, even though the Huskies gutted out a 63-60 victory. The Rockets only punted two times, had 33 first downs and racked up 265 rushing yards.

Last season, however, NIU had a young defense working through some growing pains. That unit gave up 30.3 points per game, a total which ranked just ninth in the Mid-American Conference. They gave up a whopping 415.2 yards, a mark that, once again, was good for only ninth place in the league.

In last year's win, NIU head coach Dave Doeren said his defense allowed a lot of "explosive" plays which were the result of missing tackles on defense.

This season, the Huskies' defense has been a strength. NIU has the second-best scoring defense in the league, giving up just 17.9 points per game, a total which ranks 18th in the nation. The Huskies also have the second-best total in the MAC in opponents' yards per contest (375.4).

According to Doeren, one of the many reasons for NIU's defensive improvement has been tackling.

"We didn't tackle well last year in that game," Doeren said. "That's something that I think we've done a lot better this season."

Just like NIU, Toledo will get up to the line of scrimmage quickly, and they'll spread out opposing defenses. And the Rockets have their share of weapons.

Quarterback Terrance Owens has taken over as Toledo's starter and is completing 62.1 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns. He's also a threat to run the ball.

Running back David Fluellen ran for 200 yards in Tuesday's 34-27 loss to Ball State, and is the nation's leading rusher with 1,381 yards — 39 yards ahead of NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch. Wide receiver Bernard Reedy has 901 receiving yards, and fellow wideout Alonzo Russell has 766 yards, averaging 17.4 yards per catch.

"We've got to play well in space to defend their offense. They're a very up-tempo offense like us. They're to the line of scrimmage before you can turn your head," Doeren said. "So we've got to be able to handle their tempo, which we'll practice against our own offense a lot so that we're ready for that."

After backing up Adonis Thomas last season, Fluellen has been a big surprise in the MAC. Doeren described him as patient and explosive, and mentioned how well the Rockets' offensive line has blocked for the junior.

Fluellen has gone over the 100-yard mark six straight times, and has topped 200 yards in three of his last six games.

The Huskies had three players run for more than 100 yards against them in a win over Army in Week 3. However, no back has gone over 100 yards against NIU's defense since.

"I think for us the focus is stopping the run and making them throw," senior defensive tackle Nabal Jefferson said. "Having them get in third-and-longs, and just getting off the field on third down."

Senior linebacker Tyrone Clark said he was able to watch Toledo's loss to Ball State Tuesday, and has seen Fluellen on film as well. Clark said Fluellen is a good back, but mentioned that in the end, it comes down to what NIU's defense is able to do.

"As a defense, we focus on us," Clark said. "As long as we're sound, and we do what we need to do, we'll be alright."

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