The 2006 Poinsettia Bowl runners-up take on the 2005 Poinsettia Bowl champions on Saturday as the Northern Illinois Huskies make the trip out to Annapolis to take on the Mids on Senior Day. NIU enters the game with a 2-8 record, 1-5 in the MAC. The game is a 3:30 start this week, so don’t be surprised if you tune into CSTV at 1:00 and get the second quarter of the VMI-Citadel game. If you like option football, you might want to tune into that game anyway. VMI’s offensive coordinator is Brent Davis, who coached running backs for Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern. When Johnson left for Navy, Davis stayed on as GSU’s offensive line coach under Mike Sewak. He runs an offense that’s based on what he did in Statesboro.
Anyway, moving right along… Northern Illinois has hit some hard times this season, but they’ve been a solid team for years under head coach Joe Novak. The Huskies went 3-30 in Novak’s first three years, but NIU’s patience paid off and he was able to turn things around after that. His 2003 team went 10-2 with wins over Maryland, Alabama, and Iowa State, and there were a lot of people at the time who felt that NIU should have received the at-large berth in the Houston Bowl that was instead given to Navy. Records are, of course, secondary to ticket sales when it comes to bowl games, but that’s beside the point. Novak is a good coach, and he puts together solid teams.
So what gives this season? Graduation losses– especially that of all-world RB Garrett Wolfe– meant that the Huskies figured to take at least a little bit of a step backward. Not this much, though. No, this year almost seems cursed as Novak’s team has been hit hard by injuries. You think Navy is banged up? As of last week, 26 NIU players have had to sit out at least one game due to injury. Fourteen of those players were starters. Ten of them are out for the season. It’s as if Shaun Carney decided to make a proclamation that he just can’t see Northern Illinois players getting hurt. And if you think that Navy’s secondary has issues, check this out: six NIU defensive linemen are out for the season. Six! Like Navy, NIU has also lost their defensive captain for the year, linebacker Tim McCarthy. So when you see stats like Northern Illinois being ranked 108th in rushing defense, you know why.
One player to watch that has thus far avoided the injury bug is DE Larry English. English, a 6-3, 255 lb. junior, is on the watch list for both the Lombardi and Nagurski awards and leads the MAC in both sacks per game and tackles for loss per game. Against Idaho he had 12 tackles, 5 sacks, and returned a fumble for a touchdown. The 5 sacks English had in that game are more than half of what the entire Navy team has all year.
Last week against Kent State, it looked like NIU might have finally turned things around. The Huskies put up 510 yards of offense in a 27-20 win over the MAC’s top rushing team. NIU has become a poor man’s Tailback U under Novak, with running backs like Wolfe and Michael Turner topping the 1,000-yard mark in each of the past 9 seasons. Justin Anderson made this the 9th consecutive season last week, as his 19 carries for 98 yards and 2 TDs in the first half gave him 1,096 yards for the year. Just as things looked like they were going OK, though, the curse struck again. Anderson, a redshirt sophomore, sat out most of the second half of the game with an injury. But the Huskies wouldn’t be denied, as David Bryant picked up the slack with 28 caries and 110 yards of his own. NIU quarterback Dan Nicholson had his most efficient game of the season, throwing for 275 yards and 2 touchdowns on 21-28 passing.
But it was just too good to last. Anderson is expected to play this week, but Bryant is questionable. If Anderson goes down again, NIU is left with a couple of safeties as their emergency running backs since their other tailback, Montell Clanton, is already out for the year. And now Nicholson is out with his second concussion of the season, meaning backup Ryan Morris will probably get the start at quarterback. If there was ever a week for Navy’s defense to come alive, this is it. At least on paper, anyway. Not that paper matchups have meant much up to this point.
Injuries are the big news out of Annapolis too, as Jarod Bryant will get the start at quarterback instead of Kaipo. Kaipo’s knee was banged up against North Texas, and he was unable to practice all week. Hopefully he’ll be healed enough to be back for the Army game, but for now he’s tossing the keys to PJ’s steamroller over to Bryant. Jarod ran well against the Mean Green last week, running for 57 yards and a touchdown in the second half. He seems to get better every time he gets in the game, as that performance followed up another good relief appearance versus Delaware. Whether it’s in an effort to accentuate Jarod’s strengths or hide Jarod’s weaknesses, PJ likes to run between the tackles more, at least in the option game, when Bryant is behind center. Bryant is considered by most to be a better inside runner than Kaipo, and he’s had trouble reading the pitch key on the triple option in the past. Expect to see a healthy dose of the midline option this week, with some toss sweeps for good measure. This will be Jarod’s first career regular season start, with his only other start coming in the first series of the Meineke Car Care Bowl last season.
And so, the matchup is set. Since 2003, Navy has averaged 49 points per game on Senior Day. Hopefully we’ll see a similar performance this year so those seniors that don’t always get a lot of playing time can have one last chance to take the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
Don’t Miss: If you haven’t already seen it, Bill Wagner’s piece on the defense this week is a must-read. I don’t see it posted on the Capital’s site yet, but keep checking.
EDIT: Here it is.
Service Selection: Speaking of the seniors, service selection was this week. Congratulations to the entire class of 2008! Here’s the list of football seniors as sent out by Navy SID Scott Strasemeier:
Jonathan Alvarado (Baton Rouge,La.)-Marine Corps Ground, Adam Ballard (Lewisville, Texas)-Marine Corps Ground, Paul Bridgers (Gaithersburg, Md.)-Navy Pilot, Joey Bullen (St. Simons Island, Ga.)-Intelligence; Reggie Campbell (Sanford, Fla.)-Navy Pilot, Ben Gabbard (Arnold, Md.)-Naval Flight Officer, Troy Goss (Shelby, N.C.)-Marine Corps Ground, Antron Harper (Eastman, Ga.)-Surface Warfare. Matt Humiston (Kennedale, Texas)-Marine Corps Ground, Reyn Kaupiko (Honolulu, Hawaii)-Surface Warfare, Chris Kuhar-Pitters (Spokane, Wash.)-Navy Pilot, Josh Meek (Flower Mound, Texas) Submarine (Nuclear), Matt Oberlander (Pickerington, Ohio)-Naval Flight Officer, Jordan Reagan (Carrollton, Texas)-Surface Warfare, Dell Robinson (Lindenwold, N.J.)-Marine Corps Ground, Zerbin Singleton (Decatur, Ga.)-Marine Corps Pilot, Irv Spencer (Oakwood Village, Ohio)-Surface Warfare, Greg Thrasher (Carrollton, Texas)-Surface Warfare, Greg Veteto (Corpus Christi, Texas)-Marine Corps Ground, OJ Washington (Tacoma, Wash.)-Surface Warfare, Matt Wimsatt (Raleigh, N.C.)-Marine Corps Ground, Jordan Young (Zanesville, Ohio)-Naval Flight Officer.