Carey, NIU not taking undefeated EIU lightly

DeKALB – There usually is a certain itinerary for a Football Championship Subdivision school when facing an Football Bowl Subdivision team that carries 22 more scholarship players.

It starts with playing on the road in a nicer stadium against players who are bigger and faster. Typically, it ends with a lopsided loss and a nice paycheck.

Eastern Illinois will get $250,000 for heading up Interstate 57 to take on Northern Illinois at 6 p.m. today at Huskie Stadium.

However, the Panthers aren’t your normal FCS school, already claiming a win over an FBS team by thumping San Diego State, 40-19, in its opener. EIU is in the top 10 in both major FCS polls, and is looking to become the third FCS (formerly I-AA) team to knock off two FBS schools in the same season.

NIU coach Rod Carey made it clear that his squad won’t be looking at its in-state opponent lightly.

“Label them whatever you want them as, I-AA or FCS, that don’t matter to me and it won’t matter to our team because when you put on the film, it’s a really good football team,” he said. “Period. End of story.”

It’s not like the FCS hasn’t had success against higher-level competition this season. In Week 1 alone, eight FCS schools earned victories against FBS competition.

EIU has done its damage with a strong offensive attack, led by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who leads the FCS with 1,281 passing yards. He threw a school-record seven touchdown passes against Illinois State last week.

He certainly will present a challenge for an NIU defense that has struggled at times this season.

After giving up an average of 448 yards of offense its first two games, the group is looking to take a positive step against the Panthers.

“Every week you’ve got something to work on from the previous week,” NIU linebacker Boomer Mays said. “It’s just taking that step forward. ... Maybe alignments, tackling. Just knowledge of the game.”

One definite advantage NIU will have is playing in front of its home crowd for the first time this season. The Huskies take a 21-game on-campus winning streak into tonight’s contest, where a sold-out crowd is expected.

“We had a real long stretch going to Idaho,” linebacker Rasheen Lemon said. “It is a relief coming back home, being back in front of our home crowd and being able to put on a show.”

NIU'S 5 KEYS TO VICTORY

1. Can Eastern Illinois hang around?
An obvious question. The Panthers have already beaten an FBS school and have certainly looked like a good team this season. Can EIU hang around, give NIU a game, and possibly get a win with a break or two?

2. NIU's defensive struggles
The Huskies have given up a lot of yards so far (opposing offenses have averaged 448 yards per game). NIU allowed 35 points to an Idaho team that came into the game averaging just 11.
Eastern is no slouch on offense, averaging 45.7 points and 631.3 yards per game, and has an NFL-caliber quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. This is a nice test for the NIU defense.

3. Jordan Lynch's production
Lynch has had a very good year so far, completing 60 percent of his passes for 427 yards, six touchdowns and no picks. He's run for 215 yards, and had five total touchdowns last week.
EIU gives up 445 yards per game, and Lynch could be in for a really big contest.

4. Fan support
There's been discussion about how much the Orange Bowl would affect NIU's attendance this season. With a 2-0 record and win over Iowa, there's really no excuse for Huskie Stadium not to be near capacity.

5. Tommylee Lewis
Lewis has had a great year so far, and should be a candidate for first-team All-MAC. After a two-touchdown performance Week 1, he ran for 104 yards on only four carries last week. He could be in for a big game against Eastern Illinois, which has given up nearly 300 passing yards per contest.

– Steve Nitz, snitz@shawmedia.com