5 p.m. ET
Miami faces big challenge on Huskie turf
By MIKE SMITH
Any upcoming opponent facing the Northern Illinois Huskies in DeKalb over the last several years realized they were facing a daunting task. The talented Huskies were just that good anyway, so facing them on home turf made winning there … well, almost impossible.
After 28 straight victories in DeKalb, however, NIU finally bit the home turf dust last Saturday as Central Michigan rolled out to a 21-7 halftime lead before finishing off the Huskies by a 34-17 count.
On one hand, the Chippewas win showed Northern can be beat – by a MAC team, on home turf, in a regular season game. On the other hand, the loss could make for a bunch of angry Huskies this week. But you play them the way they schedule them, and so Miami RedHawks coach Chuck Martin is expecting a spirited effort from NIU when his team meets the Huskies Saturday.
Here’s a look at the two teams:
Miami broke its FBS-worst 21-game losing streak two weeks ago when it edged UMass (then winless itself), 42-41. The Minutemen, who nearly upset Bowling Green a week earlier, then pummeled Kent State the following Saturday.
The last time NIU faced Miami, it was in the 2010 MAC Championship game, and the RedHawks pulled off a dramatic 26-21 upset to win the title.
Obviously, this year’s RedHawk team can’t match that 2010 squad, which finished 10-4 and added a Go-Daddy.com Bowl game victory to its accomplishments. Still, these aren’t the same RedHawks of a year ago, at least in the passing game.
New head coach Chuck Martin has his team in rebuilding mode, and he kick-started the efforts with a few transfers from his former place of employment – Notre Dame. Quarterback Andrew Hendrix, buried on the ND depth chart and with one more year of eligibility remaining, chose to follow Martin to Miami. It was close to his home in Cincinnati, and he would be able to start in an offensive system that he knew by heart.
Hendrix, with the help of some talented receivers, has thrived in that system. Coming into this week, Hendrix (304.4 ypg) trails only Blake Frohnapfel (UMass, 306.6 ypg) in passing yards per game. Hendrix is first in total offense by 34 yards.
Among his targets is senior David Frazier, who again last week earned MAC Player of the Week honors. Through seven games, he ranks second among MAC receivers in receiving yardage (101.0 ypg) per contest. Other receivers have also had their moments, as Hendrix will gladly spread the ball around.
Unfortunately for Hendrix and the RedHawks, one of his targets has been limited by injuries. Tight end Alex Welch, another Greater Cincinnati area product, had one catch in 22 games while at Notre Dame. Like Hendrix, he knows Martin’s offense and has been a valuable option when available. His five catches and 63 yards came in handy – to put it mildly – against UMass.
Freshman wideout Sam Martin came up big against UMass in an apparent breakout game, registering four touchdowns on the day. However, he was limited to one reception (albeit for 43 yards) in last week’s loss to Akron.
Tape – and stats – from the Akron game illustrate the RedHawks strengths and weakness. With Hendrix at the helm, Miami is more than capable of what coach Martin calls “chunk plays.”Frazier’s total of 162 yards on five catches (32.4 ypc) at Cincinnati included a 74-yarder for one of his two TDs in the contest.
Working the short and medium routes, particularly in the red zone, has been a bit more difficult.
Akron also managed to record nine sacks, a safety and an interception while pressuring Hendrix. Eastern Kentucky also had some success with pressure on Hendrix in week two.
Miami’s ability to handle pressure will say a lot about how well the RedHawks can move the ball, because the running game – similar to last year – is very sporadic. MU is 22nd nationally in passing and 123rd in rushing. Miami netted zero yards on the ground last week against Akron.
Moving receiver Dawan Scott into the backfield paid off with a 61-yard TD run against Buffalo, but he was injured shortly thereafter and has yet to return.
Of 38 Miami plays of 20 yards or more, only three were via the run. Scott provided one of those carries, and Hendrix scampered for the other two.
Even with a prolific passing game, the running game’s struggles have contributed to an offense that ranks 10th among MAC teams in scoring.
Defensively, the RedHawks are sixth in total defense. Somewhat light across the front, MU has at times struggled to stop the run. Such was the case against Buffalo, which rolled up 273 yards on the ground in a 35-27 win.
Senior DB Jarrell Jones leads the ‘Hawks with 59 tackles. Former MU basketball point guard Quinten Rollins, meanwhile, leads the conference in interceptions is second in passes defended. Despite his lack of collegiate football experience, he is getting looks from NFL scouts.
Linebackers Kent Kern (56 stops) and Joe Donlan (49) anchor a solid linebacking corps. Junior Bryson Albright (6-5, 243, DE) leads the team in sacks and has 33 tackles – best along the front line.
Kicker Kaleb Patterson has a long of 49 yards on field goals this year and booted a 52-yarder in 2013. He is 5 of 8 on field goals this season and 18 of 19 on PAT kicks.
The Huskies got off to a good start in the post-Jordan Lynch era, blasting Prebyterian 55-3 before knocking off Northwestern and UNLV in road tests.
Arkansas finally ended the run, 52-14, in Fayetteville.
NIU got back on the winning track the next week, but Kent State scored the game’s last 10 points and trailed by four midway through the final period. Nine Huskie penalties for 81 yards and the game’s only turnover didn’t help the NIU cause.
Central Michigan running back Thomas Rawls had as much to do with the Huskies loss at home the next week. He carried the ball 40 times for 270 yards. That’s virtually half of Miami’s season total.
The Chippewas, however, were also able to pass on NIU. Quarterback Cooper Rush completed 20 of 31 for 269 yards with two TDs and one interception.
At the same time, CMU’s defense – No. 1 in the MAC (355.1 ypg), limited Northern to 341 yards overall and 4 of 14 on third down conversions.
Big picture -- Central was able to bring a balanced offense and top-notch defense to bear in a big game.
The Huskies remain capable. With four returning starters along the offensive front, NIU can still move the ball, particularly on the ground.
The Huskies are second in rushing offense with 231.7 ypg. A variety of backs combine to carry the load. Four different players have at least 224 yards on the year, with three of the four averaging at least 5.0 ypc. Overall, NIU ranks 23rd nationally in rushing yards
Quarterback Drew Hare has completed 76 of 128 passes (59.4%) for 997 yards with 10 TDs on the season. His one interception on the year came last week against CMU, which leads the MAC in pass defense efficiency.
Da’Ron Brown tops the receivers with 29 catches for 499 yards with four TDs. Junior Juwan Brescacin (6-4, 224) appears to be making strides. He had six receptions for 76 yards last week and two touchdowns after grabbing three aerials for 116 yards in the Kent State game.
The Huskies are first in the league and fourth in the nation in third down efficiency. They also lead the MAC and are seventh in the nation in (least) sacks allowed.
Defensively, NIU ranks third among MAC teams in scoring defense (23.7 ypg) and total defense (387.7 ypg). Even after Rawls’ big day last week, Northern is third in rushing defense, allowing 136.8 ypg. That’s not a good sign for Miami, which got zero net rushing yards against the No. 2 Akron Zips last week.
Marion Moore leads Huskie defenders with 51 tackles, including 27 solos. Linebacker Boomer Mays is tied for fourth (MAC) in tackles for loss (1.25 per game).
Central Michigan’s stubborn defense and a diverse offense enabled the Chippewas to beat NIU last week. Not many teams can put those things together. For Miami to make a run at the Huskies, it needs:
- The offense to keep producing via the pass. Some kind of positive running game would help.
- MU needs to protect Hendrix and develop some counter moves as answers for blitzes.
- Keep NIU from sustained drives fueled by productive run game.
- Avoid turnovers and costly penalties. The latter has undermined both sides of the ball.
Even in their win over UMass, the RedHawks were far from perfcct. Miami’s margin for error is small, so it needs to do anything it can to help itself.
As for the Huskies, the tools are there, and they can still make a run in the MAC West. With a win over Miami, they can start that resume that journey while they start a new home win streak.
(NIU photo courtesy of NIU Athletics)