DeKALB – Like any program that makes the transition from the Football Championship Subdivision up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the move hasn't been easy for UMass.
As was expected, the Minutemen struggled last year in their initial season at college football's top level, going 1-11.
This year has been a little better, with UMass already equaling its 2012 win total, defeating Miami (Ohio), 17-10, at Gillette Stadium Week 7. The Minutemen had a chance to beat Western Michigan last week, getting to within one point of the Broncos with 22 seconds remaining, but UMass head coach Charley Molnar decided to go for a two-point conversion and quarterback A.J. Doyle's pass intended for Elgin Long went out of the end zone.
Despite the somewhat modest improvements, UMass is still struggling on offense, only averaging 10.6 points per game.
However, UMass' 30-point effort last week was their second-highest point total in its two years in FBS.
“They were really struggling offensively to score points and then last week they score 30 points, and really it should have been 32 and (UMass should have) gotten the win," NIU head coach Rod Carey said. "So confidence is an amazing thing for these 18-22 year olds. All of a sudden you get it and all of a sudden you start playing a lot better."
However, Doyle, who took over as starting quarterback in UMass' 24-14 loss to Maine Sept. 7, won't play against NIU, which is ranked No. 17 in the BCS standings, due to injury. Mike Wegzyn, who started 11 games last season and the team's first two games this year, will take his place. Wegzyn has completed 52.4 percent of his passes for 330 yards and two touchdowns.
NIU's defense has improved as the season's gone on. Each opponent's yardage total has gone down every week since Purdue. This afternoon, the Huskies will have a chance to shine. Last year, NIU's 63-0 win over the Minutemen at Huskie Stadium was its only shutout of the season.
“Yeah, the last few weeks I feel like we’re steadily progressing and building on each week," middle linebacker Boomer Mays said. "I think that’s key in what we’re doing to establish ourselves as a defense.”
Should the Huskies, 23.5-point favorites, improve to 9-0, the talk of returning to another BCS bowl won't stop.
By all accounts, the NIU has done a good job of ignoring the outside talk.
“We know our rankings," Mays said, "but we have the mindset of every week, we’re 0-0, and we have to face our next opponent, and we’re looking forward to Saturday.”
NIU'S FIVE STORY LINES TO WATCH
1. Will NIU win big? Northern Illinois gained 75 points in the USA Today Coaches Poll after last week's 59-20 win over a one-win Eastern Michigan team. Fresno State gained only 10 points after beating 3-4 San Diego State in overtime. Style points matter, and the Huskies can gain some this week.
2. Who plays behind Stingily? Tailback Cameron Stingily is probable this week, and if he plays, Stingily will get the majority of the carries. How will the other carries be split between James Spencer and true freshmen Draco Smith and Joel Bouagnon?
3. Jordan Lynch's numbers Eight games into the season, Jordan Lynch's name is coming up more and more in the national media. The minutemen give up 436 yards of offense per game (10th in the MAC) and 227 rushing yards (11th in the conference). Lynch could easily put up more video game numbers this week.
4. Defensive steps UMass is averaging 10.6 points per game. The Minutemen gain only 284 yards of total offense. NIU's defense has looked better and better as the season has gone on.
5. Staying healthy The last thing NIU wants in a game like this is to suffer any sort of injury. The big test with Ball State is next, and the Huskies need to be at full strength.
– Steve Nitz, email@example.com