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Football

NIU hosts much-improved Eastern Michigan

Northern Illinois football coach Dave Doeren and his players walk onto Soldier Field for their game against Wisconsin earlier this season. The Huskies will walk onto the field against Eastern Michigan for their final home game, which kicks off 10 a.m. Friday.
Northern Illinois football coach Dave Doeren and his players walk onto Soldier Field for their game against Wisconsin earlier this season. The Huskies will walk onto the field against Eastern Michigan for their final home game, which kicks off 10 a.m. Friday.

DeKALB – A movement sprung in the traditionally predictable Mid-American Conference West Division this season, shocking to anyone who follows the league.

Apparently, Northern Illinois senior middle linebacker Pat Schiller noticed.

“The days of marking Eastern Michigan as a win on your schedule are over,” he said this week. “Just watching them on film the past few days, it just looks like a completely different team.”

A completely different team, and then some.

NIU (8-3, 6-1 MAC West) could win its second straight West title with a win against Eastern Michigan (6-5, 4-3 MAC West) at 10 a.m. today at Huskie Stadium, but the Huskies aren’t the only team with something to play for. Picked to finish fifth out of six team in the MAC West, expectations for the Eagles football team this season were the same they have been the past decade. Instead, they have risen from their annual bottom-dwelling status.

At the end of a season that includes wins against in-state MAC opponents Western Michigan and Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan is on the verge of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 1995. The program hasn’t been to a bowl since 1987.

Like a sports movie, the roles are well defined. While NIU fans dream of a December trip to Detroit, their team blocks the league’s feel-good story of the year.

“They’ve lost two of their last three, and obviously they’ve been heartbreak losses,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said of Eastern Michigan. “Obviously, this program (NIU) understands what it feels like, so I know how thirsty they are to feel victory. And I know as a coaching staff what going to a bowl game means – it means extra practices for your development, and that’s key when you’re trying to rebuild.

“I don’t know how much of a rebuild he’s doing right now. They’re pretty good.”

The biggest difference seems to be the Eagles’ identity. No longer is this a soft team. After adding a few transfer players from BCS programs, they’ve adopted a much-need and long-absent swagger.

“Watching the film, they’re a hard-nosed football team,” Schiller said. “They’re as physical of a football team that I’ve seen all year. We know that we have to play our best to beat them.

NIU doesn’t relish its role as the big, bad bully of the West. As a fifth-year senior, center Scott Wedige appreciates the turnaround Eastern Michigan made this season.

“I think it’s a great thing for their program,” Wedige said. “For coach Ron English to take those guys and really turn it around, and really go back to fundamentals and have them run the football and play good defense, it’s a testament to him and his program and his players buying into his system. I mean, I’m happy for them.”

Then Wedige shifted his thoughts to Friday. It’s his final game in Huskie Stadium, an opportunity to reach the game this program has yearned for the past year. And there went the good feelings.

“I won’t be happy for them this weekend,” he said.

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