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College football: NIU ready to face Western Michigan

NIU running back Jordan Huff (23) beats Ball State Cardinals linebacker Brandon Martin (26) for a touchdown at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 9.
NIU running back Jordan Huff (23) beats Ball State Cardinals linebacker Brandon Martin (26) for a touchdown at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 9.

DeKALB – The Huskies have the eighth-best rushing defense in the country. The Broncos are the 13th-best team moving the ball on the ground.

When the Northern Illinois and Western Michigan football teams meet Wednesday in DeKalb, something will have to give.

"They're top 10 in the country at stopping the run, and we're pretty good at running it. That's what we lean on," first-year Western Michigan coach Tim Lester said. "It's a pretty interesting matchup that way. There's a reason they're No. 2 in the West right now."

The Huskies (7-3, 5-1 Mid-American Conference) enter the game tied with Toledo for the MAC West lead, but the Rockets hold the tiebreaker. The Broncos (6-4, 4-2) are third, but their two remaining games are against the Huskies and Rockets.

NIU is allowing 109.8 rushing yards a game and has only given up eight rushing touchdowns. Western Michigan averages 249.2 rushing yards a game and has 24 rushing touchdowns.

"It's great that we've been good. It doesn't guarantee we will be good," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "The only thing that can help that is how you work daily, and that's been the most impressive thing about this team, and the defense as well. They come to work every day – and they don't feel like it every day, I can tell you that, but they come to work every day. And I've been extremely happy with that."

Most of the Broncos' success comes from Jarvion Franklin, who has rushed for 4,700 yards in his career, including 1,061 this year. He has scored 10 times on the ground.

"He's a big back that runs over his pads, and he can certainly make you miss and has some great speed, too," Carey said. "I don't want to underestimate the other attributes he has, but the thing that stands out is he's a load to bring down."

Franklin has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in all but one of his four years with the Broncos and was the MAC Freshman of the Year in 2014.

“We have a lot of respect for their offense and their team in general," NIU safety Trayshon Foster said. "Jarvion Franklin is a great running back, but we’re going to come out, do what we have to do and execute our game plan. Fly to the ball, swarm to the ball and play good team defense.”

Carey said that in addition to Franklin, the Huskies are wary of senior kick returner Darius Phillips, who has returned five kickoffs (two this year) and a punt for touchdowns in his career.

"I think they try to impose their will on you as a football team with that run game, that defense and special teams," Carey said. "They have a dynamic returner in Darius Phillips, and he's been doing it for a long time. They really try to bend you until you break, and you can't allow that to happen if you want to have success against them."

The Broncos are allowing 27.6 points a game and more than 375 yards a game – including 230.5 through the air and 147.2 on the ground.

Redshirt freshman Marcus Childers will start at quarterback, although Carey said Ryan Graham – who like Lester attended Wheaton Warrenville South – will get some playing time. Childers had four touchdown passes in last week's 63-17 win against Ball State.

"He's getting better every single week, and now Ryan Graham is back," Lester said. "So now they kind of have a two-headed monster. But I think they, like we try to do, run the ball, play good defense and help the quarterback out. The young kid has been helped out by that, but he's made some great plays too. I've been very impressed with him."

NIU senior cornerback Shawun Lurry said the Huskies have to keep doing what they've been doing this year. 

"I know they have good backs and good big backs, too, so we need to just keep doing what we been doing." Lurry said, "Don’t overthink it and just play good football.”

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