(Sports Network) This incredible run for Northern Illinois continues to get better, as the team was recently place in the Top 25 for the first time since 2003. However, coach Jerry Kill realizes why it is a great honor, his team must also be focus on the task at hand and that is winning the MAC title game.
"It's good for our school and good for our football program, and this Friday we'll see if we're worthy of it," Kill said. "We've done a nice job, so far, but those are the key words - so far."
The Huskies are definitely worthy of the 24th spot in the rankings, having won 10 of their 12 matchups, including a nine-game winning streak, which the team carries in this contest. NIU finished the regular season a perfect 8-0 in league action, earning a spot in this matchup for the first time since 2005, and with one more win NIU will claim this league's top achievement for the first time since 1983.
As for the RedHawks, they have flown under the radar all season, and where not really even in the discussion for the division title, as most believed it would come down to either Ohio or Temple. However, Miami-Ohio played its game and won its last four matchups. The RedHawks closed out its regular season with a 23-3 victory over Temple, but for the team from Oxford to get to this point they still needed Ohio to loss to Kent State, and that is exactly what happened, pushing Miami-Ohio into its first league title game since 2007.
The series between the Huskies and RedHawks is currently knotted at seven games apiece, but Northern Illinois has dominated Miami-Ohio over the past few seasons, winning five consecutive matchups, including a 27-22 decision this past season.
The Huskies set a school-record for points scored in a year and a large reason for that is because the team tallied 65, 59 and 71 over its last three games. In the 71-point effort against Eastern Michigan, the Huskies used their ground game, as the team rumbled for 544 yards and eight touchdowns. Since the Huskies were on cruise control there were a few players that saw more action than they are used to seeing, such as Jordan Lynch, who led the ground game with 142 yards and two scores. Jasmin Hopkins added 104 yards and one scores, while backup quarterback DeMarcus Grady rumbled for 91 yards and two scores as well. As for Chad Spann, the team's best running back, he rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries. Chandler Harnish, the team's starting quarterback, he finished with 101 yards and two scores through the air. The Huskies have relied heavily on the run throughout the season, so they have not needed Harnish to lead the way, but still the signal caller has managed to throw for 17 touchdowns, while tossing only five interceptions. He has also added 761 yards and five mores scored on the ground for NIU, which as a team is averaging 279.2 ypg via the run. Leading the way has been Spann, who has rumbled for 1,239 yards, while scoring 20 of the team's 38 rushing TDs.
Since the offense controlled the ball for a little under 40 minutes against Eastern Michigan, the defense did not spend much time on the field, but when called to duty this unit answered, allowing just three points to the Eagles, while holding the much weaker opponent to just 160 total yards. This unit has done a terrific job throughout the season, and is currently holding opponents to just 18.5 ppg. NIU did surrender over 100 rushing yards to Eastern Michigan, and if there is one weak spot for this defense it is in that area, as opponents are churning out 133.2 ypg against this unit, while also scoring 13 touchdowns on the ground against the Huskies.
The RedHawks needed to win the last time they were on the field, and did just that, beating Temple by 20 points. The offense, which has been erratic at times this year, pulverized the Owls on the ground, rushing for 253 yards on 6.7 yards per attempt. Thomas Merriweather had one of his better games on the season, pouncing on Temple for 182 yards on just 22 carries. Austin Boucher, who is still filling in for the injured Zac Dysert, was able to manage the game well, throwing for 155 yards, and even tossed two touchdowns. It is unlikely Dysert (13 touchdowns, 12 interceptions) will be on the field Friday, so Boucher will have to continue to perform well in these pressure contests. He will benefit from having the receiving tandem of Armand Robinson and Nick Harwell. The two wideouts have combined for 128 receptions, 1,624 yards and 10 touchdowns. However, what would really make Boucher comfortable is continued success from the ground game, but that might be asking too much. Miami-Ohio is posting just 96.6 ypg on the ground, and although Merriweather came close to totaling 200 yards against Temple, the tailback has tallied just 736 yards and eight scores in 12 games.
In the biggest game of the season, the RedHawks stepped up not only offensively, but also put forth an impressive defensive showing against Temple. Granted, the Owls were without their best offensive weapon in Bernard Pierce, but they were still a force without him, but not against Miami-Ohio, which held the Owls to just 70 rushing yards on 2.5 ypc. The defense also did a solid job against the pass, holding Temple to just 145 yards, while collecting two interceptions. Miami-Ohio forced four turnovers in the win, and also limited the Owls to only 2-of-13 on third down attempts. Making big plays have been a key to the success of this unit, which is allowing 23.6 ppg. Miami-Ohio has collected 29 takeaways on the season, while recording 29 sacks as well. The RedHawks are only allowing 123.8 ypg on 3.9 yards per carry this year, but this will without question be their toughest test against the run.
Miami-Ohio continues to defy the odds each and every week, so it is tough to count the RedHawks out in the biggest game of the season. However, when it comes down to it, the Huskies are just too good, and should be able to finish what they started back in September.
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