Northern Illinois reigned supreme in the MAC in 2014, although a blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl ended last season on a disappointing note. The path to the MAC West division crown figures to go through the Huskies once again this fall, as Rod Carey's team returns 14 starters from a team that is used to winning. Northern Illinois is in search of its sixth straight division crown and its fourth MAC championship in the past five years.
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Previewing Northern Illinois’ Offense for 2015
Northern Illinois has remained one of the best offensive units in the MAC through several coaching changes over the last decade. The offense should keep on piling up points and yardage in 2015, but it will have a slightly different look.
Unlike last season, there won’t be any uncertainty at quarterback. Drew Hare won a three-player competition with his performance in the second half of a win at Northwestern in Week 2. Hare doesn’t possess the running ability of past stars Jordan Lynch or Chandler Harnish, but he completed nearly 60 percent of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions.
“He’s a completely different quarterback,” NIU coach Rod Carey says. “He has the confidence of knowing he’s the quarterback.”
The offense should be more pass-heavy because of the athleticism and depth at wide receiver. Senior Tommylee Lewis, who had 86 receptions in 2013, is back after missing most of last season with a toe injury. Senior Juwan Brescacin is a big-play threat, junior Chad Beebe is a solid possession receiver and North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay’s size makes him an instant red-zone threat.
The Huskies’ success on offense usually hinges on their ability to run the ball and the development of the line. They finished 16th in the country in rushing offense last season, averaging 249.1 yards per game, but they must replace running backs Cameron Stingily and Akeem Daniels. Northern Illinois will employ a committee approach, with Keith Harris Jr., Joel Bouagnon, Draco Smith and Jordan Huff splitting carries early in the season.
Questions surround the offensive line as center Andrew Ness and left guard Aidan Conlon are the lone returning starters. Right guard Josh Ruka, right tackle Lincoln Howard and left tackle Levon Myers all gained valuable experience as reserves last season.
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Previewing Northern Illinois’ Defense for 2015
While eight starters return from a unit that finished 51st in the country in scoring defense, the Huskies must replace defensive end Jason Meehan and free safety Dechane Durante, although the core of a defense that forced 24 takeaways and registered 32 sacks last season is mostly back. Up front, the Huskies need defensive ends Cameron Clinton-Earl and Perez Ford to apply pressure. Rasheen Lemon, the second-leading tackler last season, headlines a solid group of linebackers.
The secondary is a position of strength, with three starters back from a unit that picked off the majority of the 14 interceptions last season. Strong safety Marlon Moore, who led the Huskies with 99 tackles, is the anchor, and all-conference cornerback Paris Logan is a proven defender.
Previewing Northern Illinois’ Specialists for 2015
Kicker Christian Hagan emerged late last season to become a reliable option. Redshirt freshman punter Peter Deppe is the leading candidate to take over for Tyler Wedel. The return game could use an upgrade after finishing 91st on kickoff returns and 74th on punt returns.
Despite the Huskies’ loss of most of their playmakers on offense and top sack specialist, the road to the MAC West title still goes through Northern Illinois. The offense has the potential to be formidable again with a solid group of running backs, an explosive corps of receivers and Hare benefiting from a full offseason as the starting quarterback. Defensively, the Huskies are solid in the secondary with a few spots to fill at linebacker and along the defensive line.
The Huskies have lost three straight bowl games, including a 52–23 blowout loss to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl last season. Carey is not shying away from using that as motivation. The conference schedule is favorable for a run at a sixth straight West title and fourth conference championship in five years.