When Dave Doeren was named Northern Illinois coach back in December of 2010, he found out pretty quickly what the Huskies’ rivalry with Toledo meant to the NIU fan base.
In fact, he found out as soon as he was introduced as NIU’s coach.
“I was told the first day on campus,” Doeren said. “When you have your press conference, tons of people walk up to you and congratulate you. And many of them say ‘Hey beat Toledo.’ So kind of right away I knew it was a big game here.”
Since NIU’s program was revived under Joe Novak in the early 2000s, the annual game against Toledo has had significant meaning to the Huskies and their fans. The past two seasons, the matchup has decided the Mid-American Conference West Division title.
This season, it’s more of the same. A win for NIU means the Huskies clinch their third consecutive division title. A victory for the Rockets means they would win the West Division with a victory Tuesday against lowly Akron.
Doeren got a win in his inaugural game with the Rockets last season, the 63-60 thriller at the Glass Bowl. Jerry Kill beat Toledo in two of his three seasons as Huskies head coach, with the only loss coming in 2009, when NIU kicker Mike Salerno had an extra point and a 42-yard field goal blocked by Toledo’s Barry Church, who’s now with the Dallas Cowboys.
Novak wasn’t as successful against Toledo. During his 12 seasons at the helm of the Huskies program, Novak was able to beat Toledo just once, a 35-17 win back in 2005. In Novak’s last year in DeKalb, 2007, the Rockets beat his team, 70-21, at the Glass Bowl.
The game with Toledo meant a lot to Novak. He wasn’t at Huskie Stadium in 2008 when Kill beat the Rockets, 38-7, in the current Minnesota coach’s first season in DeKalb. But after the contest, Kill actually saved the game ball and sent it to his predecessor.
It’s still sitting in Novak’s room.
“Jerry knew how frustrated I got with that series. I let him know how important it was when I left, and he told me when they win they’re going to give me the game ball. And they won and they gave it to me. It’s one of the things I treasure, I really do,” Novak said. “It’s obviously a big game, it has been. And the way things are going, I think both programs are the two strongest, year in and year out in the West, and it’s going to be that way for a while.”
When Novak helped lead the Huskies back into the MAC in the late 1990s, NIU was a bottom feeder while Toledo was winning under Gary Pinkel, and then Tom Amstutz.
However, the Huskies have now won two matchups in a row, with Kill and Doeren beating Tim Beckman, who’s now the head coach at Illinois.
Once again, it’s the game of the year in the MAC West.
Bill Baker has done play-by-play for NIU football since 1980. Sometimes, after a Huskies victory, he’ll say a phrase like “goodbye Kansas”, which he used after NIU’s 30-23 win over the Jayhawks earlier this season. On the road, Baker used to say things like “goodbye Muncie” or “goodbye Kalamazoo” when the Huskies won at Ball State or Western Michigan.
After watching NIU’s Tommylee Lewis return two kickoffs for touchdowns, the Huskies and Rockets combine for 1,121 yards and 60 first downs, and Perez Ashford catch a touchdown pass from Chandler Harnish with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter to get NIU a 63-60 win over the Rockets last year, Baker let it all out.
He yelled, “Goodbye Toledo, goodbye Toledo” after Rockets receiver Eric Page was pushed out of bounds inside NIU territory to end the game.
The call is still played here and there on WSCR 670.
“It’s about getting everything built up inside you, really. The ‘goodbye Toledo’ just fell out of there,” Baker said. “The last touchdown that we scored with 19 seconds to go, I think I yelled touchdown five or six times if I remember.”
It was Doeren’s first game against Toledo. To say it was a unique experience is an understatement.
Despite barely escaping the Glass Bowl with a win, Doeren watched his defense give up 589 yards of total offense.
He doesn’t want to be involved in another game like last year’s.
“No. Quite honestly, I don’t want to be,” Doeren said. “I’m just glad we got the ‘W’, and that’s all that matters. I know they thought the same way. I don’t think either team’s defense did what they were supposed to do in that contest, and both offenses did everything. Our special teams were fantastic in that game last year.”
The fog game
Neither NIU or Toledo were in contention for a MAC West title in 2006, the start of Central Michigan’s brief dominance in the division. Instead, the Huskies were fighting for a bowl berth, and NIU would eventually earn a spot in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego.
Still, the Huskies’ contest against the Rockets on Nov. 7, 2006 was a memorable one. A close contest ended when NIU wide receiver Britt Davis dropped a touchdown pass from Phil Horvath late in the fourth quarter, helping preserve a Toledo win.
But what the game will be remembered for is the fog, which rolled in and stayed for a good portion of the game.
Baker remembers being able to see the field for some of the first half, and having some visibility at halftime. In the second half, the fog was there, and Baker had to rely on his sideline reporter, Casey Kahler, for info.
Kahler spots for Baker and his color analyst, Mark Lindo, from the field. During this particular game, he had a bigger job, telling Baker the formation, who was on the field and what was happening.
Baker never saw the dropped pass by Davis in the end zone, but called it, thanks to his help from the sideline.
“I don’t know what we would have done without [Kahler], to be perfectly honest with you,” Baker said. “The wireless and the sideline reporting saved us that night.”
Toledo’s main geographic rival is Bowling Green, as the schools sit less than 30 miles apart. Even though the Rockets and Falcons are in separate divisions in the MAC, they still play a crossover each year in the Battle of I-75.
The Rockets’ rivalry with NIU has grown with the two teams’ success over the past decade, especially the last three seasons. To Baker, the rivalry between the schools lies more with the NIU fans.
The Huskies don’t have another in-state conference school to develop a rivalry with, and NIU hardly ever gets to play Illinois or Northwestern. NIU and Ball State started playing for the Bronze Stalk Trophy in 2008, but it’s not the same as when the Huskies and Rockets meet up.
“This is a genuine rivalry in [NIU fans’] minds,” Baker said. “I think on the other side, it’s kind of a work in progress, if you know what I mean. ... I think there’s some rivalry coming now. That wasn’t there before.”
On Toledo’s side, there’s still a sense of appreciation for what NIU has accomplished in recent seasons.
“I think more than anything is, there’s a tremendous respect when you look at their football program and what they’ve done over the last 10 to 12 years in their program,” Rockets head coach Matt Campbell said. “And I think you look over, what Toledo has done over the last 10 to 12 years. I think in this conference, there’s been great success, no matter who’s been the coach or what the programs have stood for.
“Any time you have that, and then you play each other, there’s going to be a great sense of rivalry and a great sense of excitement when you go into a football game like that.”