Tuesday night is not made for college football. Unless, of course, you’re the MAC, in which case any time is a good time as long as you’re on TV. Such is life when you’re battling for exposure. Tomorrow night’s game at Northern Illinois will be the Mids’ third road game at a MAC school in two years, with each of them being moved to a weeknight and broadcast on one of the ESPN channels. Originally this game was going to be shown on ESPN2, but with an unbeaten Ball State team taking on Western Michigan for the MAC West crown on the same night, Navy-NIU no longer receives top billing. Instead, our game will be shown on ESPN2 ESPN Classic. There are good things and bad things about this move.
- Less exposure for the program on a channel not as widely distributed.
- Horrible, horrible ESPN Classic production quality. Seriously, watch an Army game sometime. Laughable.
- No high definition.
- Most likely a JV team in the broadcast booth.
- Not what NAAA agreed to when it signed off on moving the game to a Tuesday night.
- No “Interactive Tuesday.”
ADVANTAGE: ESPN CLASSIC
I’m trying to imagine the meeting up in Bristol when this idea was cooked up. “Hey guys! I know how to make our weekday games even better! Let’s add polls and message board posters!” It’s bad enough that the actual game being played is usually just background material while the broadcast team discusses the weekend’s big BCS-conference matchups or drag racing or a local eatery or how they want a playoff. Now we get all that plus insightful commentary like “BUCKNUTZ321: OMG TEH WOLVERINEZ R TEH SUXORZ ” and “REDRAYDER4LYFE: HAI GUYZ DO U THINK TEXAS TECH WOULD BEAT THE KANSAS CITY CHIEFS” scrolling across the top of the screen. Awesome. Hey, we all know why they do it. They have to find a way to increase ratings, and that means they have to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Even if it sucks eggs, they know we’ll still watch because it’s football! On a Tuesday! But that doesn’t mean we have to like it.
But enough of the tangent, and on to the game.
Joe Novak took over as head coach of the Northern Illinois football team in 1996. It was a difficult time for the program; they hadn’t had a winning season since 1990, and they had just dropped out of the Big West conference to go independent for a year before rejoining the MAC. Things didn’t get any easier in Novak’s first three years, as the Huskies struggled to a 3-30 record in that span. But eventually he was able to get things turned around. NIU was 5-6 in Novak’s fourth year before starting a string of seven consecutive winning seasons, including a 10-win campaign in 2003 that saw victories over Maryland, Alabama, and Iowa State.
That all ended last year. A string of bad injuries and bad luck made Joe Novak’s final season in Dekalb painful, as NIU limped to a 2-10 record (including a 35-24 loss at the hands of Navy). With Novak retiring, Northern Illinois began the process to find his replacement. They didn’t have to go far; the Huskies went to the other end of the state and hired Southern Illinois head coach Jerry Kill. Kill’s story parallels Novak’s in a lot of ways. Like Novak, Kill struggled through a couple of seasons of his own before also leading the Salukis to a 10-win season in 2003. That would be the first of three straight conference championships for SIU. In 2007, they won 12 games before falling to Delaware in the I-AA semifinals. Having turned Southern Illinois from a doormat to a playoff regular, Kill seemed like a good choice to pick up where Joe Novak left off.
At the end of year 1, there is no reason to change that opinion. Bouncing back from last year’s debacle, NIU is sitting at 6-5 and has a chance to clinch another winning season tomorrow night against Navy.
The team that the Mids will be taking on tomorrow night is a far cry from the beaten-down squad they took on last year. Perhaps the most staggering improvement has been on defense, where nine starters return from last year’s unit. Last year, NIU was 12th in the conference in rushing defense. This year, they are first. Last week the Huskies held the MAC’s top rushing offense, Kent State, to 127 rushing yards on 34 carries. They held Tennessee to a scant 69 yards on the ground and only 9 first downs. In 2007 the Huskies were 11th in the MAC in total defense. This year, they are first. Last year, they were 9th in the conference in scoring defense. This year, they are second, and in the top 20 nationally. Only two games removed from struggling against another MAC defense, one would be foolish to take NIU’s defense lightly– especially considering the caliber of offenses in the MAC West. The unit is led by defensive end Larry English, the 2007 MAC Most Valuable Player. English holds the school record for sacks with 31.5, and is also the country’s active career leader in that category. He has 8 this year despite playing most of the season with a broken hand. The linebackers are a veteran group, led by seniors Josh Allen and Tim McCarthy. Sophomore Alex Kube (sounds like “Cuba”) is the youngster of the group, but led the team with 15 tackles in Annapolis last year.
On the other side of the ball, NIU can be described as what Paul Johnson liked to call the “NCAA offense.” PJ described the NCAA Offense like so: “They run some two backs, a little one back, they will spread you out, and they will run some power. I think they want to try and be balanced. ” That’s NIU in a nutshell. The run comes first with the Huskies. They average a healthy 176 yards per game on the ground, led by a veteran offensive line that tips the scales at 294 pouds per man. Unlike last year, where Justin Anderson carried the ball 39 times against the Mids, this season’s edition of the NIU offense likes to spread their carries around; six NIU players have at least 30 carries on the season. Chandler Harnish, a big, mobile, redshirt freshman, starts at quarterback. He’s coming off of a tremendous performance last week against Kent State where he threw for 173 yards and ran for 117 more, with 4 total TDs. It was his second 100-yard rushing performance of the year, and he is second on the team in rushing. He would probably lead the team had he not missed three games due to injury. Instead, that distinction goes to another freshman, Me’co Brown. Built more like a Navy slotback than a traditional tailback, Brown has run for 503 yards this season while also serving as the team’s leading return man.
This is a good test for the Navy defense, and a good opportunity to develop some consistency. The Mids have played well in a few games, but have followed up some of their best performances with some real stinkers. Last week the defense was able to put together a good showing against a Notre Dame team that was determined to run the ball. Northern Illinois doesn’t have the raw talent of Notre Dame, but they are probably better coached and just as eager to run. Ross Pospisil had 20 tackles in last year’s game, but with NIU being a little more varied in their running scheme this year, I doubt anyone will match that total tomorrow night.
No matter how the defense plays, though, the only thing that anyone will be talking about on Wednesday is the play of Ricky Dobbs, who (like Jarod Bryant last year) gets his first real start against Northern Illinois. Coach Niumatalolo has been upbeat about Dobbs’ performance in practice this week: “He has had a really good week of practice. I have been really encouraged by the way he has practiced.” Considering how Coach Niumat spent last week talking about the mistakes Ricky made in practice, that’s a good thing. And maybe it isn’t really a surprise, either. Being named the starter is a tremendous responsibility, and sometimes knowing that causes a player to focus better. Either way, Ricky should do well if the team around him does its job. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty big “if” this year. It’s also natural to expect a few more passes this week to take advantage of what Ricky does best.
Usually by the 11th game of the season you expect to have a pretty good idea of how things are going to turn out. But with all the variables going into this game, anything is possible.