Dekalb, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - The 18th-ranked Northern Illinois Huskies continue their quest for perfection, as they close out the regular season on Tuesday night with a home bout against the Western Michigan Broncos.
Thanks to another Heisman run by its star quarterback, Northern Illinois continued its streak of 11-win seasons, now at three straight after last week's 35-17 road win at Toledo. The team, which has already secured a spot in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game for the fourth straight season, is 11-0 on the year, including 7-0 in MAC play. With the win over the Rockets, NIU has now won 24 straight conference games, the longest streak in the country. The Huskies also boast of the nation's longest win streak at home (25 games).
P.J. Fleck's first season at the helm of the Broncos couldn't have gone much worse. Western Michigan is a miserable 1-10 overall, with the lone win coming at the end of October against Massachusetts (31-30). The team has played better of late, but narrow losses to Eastern Michigan (35-32 OT) and Central Michigan (27-22) ring a bit hollow.
This marks the 39th all-time meeting between these two teams. The Broncos hold a 23-15 series advantage.
The Broncos have struggled greatly on the offensive side of the ball this season, ranking 115th nationally in scoring (17.5 ppg) and 110th in total offense (333.6 ypg).
Instability under center has certainly been a big reason for the lack of numbers, as redshirt freshman Zach Terrell and senior Tyler Van Tubbergen have split time, with neither distinguishing themselves. The pair have combined for just under 2,400 passing yards, with 12 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. Tubbergen has been dealing with a shoulder injury for a few weeks and isn't expected to play in the season finale.
One bright spot has been the play of freshman wideout Corey Davis. The 6- foot-2 youngster not only leads the team, but all freshmen nationally with 64 receptions, for 913 yards and six TDs.
Another area where the Broncos have struggled is on the ground. WMU is averaging a modest 118.3 yards per game rushing, but neither Dareyon Chance (59.8 ypg), nor Brian Fields (55.2 ypg) are game-changers.
Still, being competitive late in the season, especially offensively, is something Fleck hopes to build on.
"They've had every right to quit this entire year, and normal teams would have quit," said Fleck following the loss to Central Michigan. "That tells me that the foundation is being built. I am proud of that group."
Compounding the problem for WMU this season is a defense that is allowing an alarming 35.6 ppg. The Broncos have been particularly susceptible to the run, allowing 234.1 ypg (115th nationally). A lack of a pass rush is also reason for concern, as WMU has just seven sacks all year.
Junior free safety Justin Currie has done his part, making plays all over the field. Currie leads the Broncos in tackles (103), is tied in interceptions (3) and forced fumbles (2) and ranks second on the team in TFL (7.0).
Quarterback Jordan Lynch has to be salivating over the possibilities against a porous defense like Western Michigan this week. The nation's premier dual threat, Lynch leads an NIU offensive attack that is generating 43.7 ppg and 549.5 total yards. The Huskies are churning out 309.3 yards rushing per game (seventh nationally), adding 240.2 yards through the air.
Forget the "level of competition" argument, as Lynch has put together his second straight Heisman worthy campaign. The 6-0 senior has completed 66.3 percent of his passes, for 2,418 yards and 21 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,434 yards and 17 more scores.
He makes everyone around him better on offense, and has aided in big seasons for tailback Cameron Stingily (958 yards, nine TDs) and wideouts Tommylee Lewis (74 receptions, 623 yards, three TDs) and Da'Ron Brown (41 receptions, 689 yards, nine TDs).
The NIU defense is a few steps behind the offense in terms of production, but the Huskies haven't had to be stout with the way Lynch is running rampant. On the season, the Huskies are allowing 24.5 ppg, as foes are putting up 425.5 yards of total offense on average. Still, this unit makes plays, as evidenced by its +13 turnover margin (eighth nationally), having recorded 17 interceptions.
Leading the way in that regard is ball hawk Jimmie Ward. The senior safety is second on the team in total tackles (74), but first in the MAC with six interceptions. Junior linebacker Jamaal Bass leads the team in tackles (75), with two forced fumbles. Senior end George Rainey (34 tackles) is the top playmaker up front, leading in TFL (8.0) and sacks (4.0).
Despite the obvious advantages NIU has coming into this game, head coach Rod Carey has tried to keep his team focused on the task at hand,
"It's going to be a challenge," said Carey. "It's a team that you can't take lightly at this time of the year because no matter what a team's struggles are through the course of a year, you get to this time of the year and you see improvement. Those freshmen, those young guys they've been playing aren't freshmen anymore. They're seasoned. We certainly have to dot our I's and cross our T's on this one. It's a big game for us."