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NIU football: Huskies set to begin MAC play with homecoming showdown vs. Kent State

Carey: "It is one of those games that is just a dog fight"

Northern Illinois wide receiver Christian Blake makes a catch on his way to scoring a touchdown as San Diego State cornerback Ron Smith defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Northern Illinois wide receiver Christian Blake makes a catch on his way to scoring a touchdown as San Diego State cornerback Ron Smith defends during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

DeKALB – Northern Illinois last lost to Kent State on Oct. 13, 2001. 

Since then, the Huskies have won their past nine games against the Golden Flashes. NIU’s winning streak is exactly why coach Rod Carey expects an intense homecoming battle when NIU hosts Kent State in the Huskies’ Mid-American Conference opener at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. 

“It is one of those games, you know you are getting into a fight,” Carey said. “That’s great that we have won [nine straight vs. Kent State], but it has been or felt like a one-score game every time, regardless of what their record is, or our record is. It is one of those games that is just a dogfight.” 

NIU (2-2) returns to DeKalb after dropping a tightly contested game last week, a 34-28 loss to No. 19 San Diego State. The Huskies outgained the Aztecs in total yards (417-263) had double the amount of first downs (22-10) and limited them on third down to only one of 14, but NIU committed four turnovers, including three interceptions thrown by sophomore quarterback Daniel Santacaterina. Jordan Huff ran for 148 yards on 25 carries. 

“[Our defense] is playing with good eyes, playing with good leverage, and getting (opposing offenses) in situations where you can know what they are going to do and have a step on it,” Carey said. “That was a big part on what we were doing.”

The Huskies lead the MAC in rushing defense (105 rushing yards a game) and are seventh in the nation in tackles for loss (8½). Senior Bobby Jones leads the group with of 10 tackles and four tackles for loss a game. 

NIU, however, will be without a pair of key sophomore linebackers in Kyle Pugh and Antonio Jones-Davis. Pugh suffered a season-ending torn biceps injury at SDSU, while Jones-Davis will serve a one-game suspension for gouging SDSU’s Rashaad Penny in the eye. Pugh was a vocal leader and NIU’s second-best tackler at 8.8 tackles a game.

“These guys have been battle tested,” Kent State coach Paul Haynes said. “Having [played] Boston College at home, going to Nebraska and winning and then going to San Diego State and playing them to six points. Very confident, very hard-nosed football team. Rod Carey is a personal friend that I think is a great football coach.”  

Carey said he expects to start Santacaterina for a fourth straight game. Ryan Graham injured his shoulder against Boston College on Sept. 1 and hasn’t played since. Graham started throwing this week for the first time since going down, but Carey said he doesn’t expect him to be ready for Kent State.

Meanwhile, Santacaterina will see a familiar foe in the Golden Flashes. He made his first career start against Kent State in the 2016 season finale after injuries to NIU’s top three quarterbacks. Santacaterina completed 13 of 23 passes for 258 yards with one rushing touchdown, leading NIU to a 31-21 victory. 

“[Santacaterina] is a really good quarterback,” NIU left tackle Max Scharping said. “I don’t think we’re really too surprised because we’ve seen him in practice, and last year when he came in at the end … He’s been doing this ever since he’s gotten here.”

Kent State (1-4, 0-1) also is without its starting quarterback, Nick Holley, who is out for the season with a knee injury. Haynes said he will experiment using two quarterbacks against NIU, but did not announce who will be the starter between junior George Bollas and freshman Dustin Crum. 

“Those two quarterbacks … have a little different skill sets and different mentality each of them. But their offense has changed from Holley to these two,” Carey said. “It will be a challenge. What they do offensively is really hard to defend. They try to get you in space a little bit, they play unconventional option football, and then try to hit you with some big plays along with some traditional three-step stuff.”

Carey added, “We always like to play conference. We have a conference championship. You don’t get a trophy for going 4-0, 0-4, 3-1 whatever it is nonconference. Conference, you’re playing for something. Our guys are really excited.”

Prediction: Northern Illinois 38, Kent State 10

NIU is only a few plays away from being 4-0. The Huskies gave up only three points and 104 yards in the second half to San Diego State. The defense keeps improving, and Santacaterina wants to prove he’s better than what his turnover ratio shows.  

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