2011 SEASON IN REVIEW:The Huskies managed to finish with an impressive 11-3 record for the second season in a row thanks to a nine-game winning streak to end the year. the longest current winning streak in the FBS heading into 2012.
Dave Doeren won his first career game as a head coach in the regular season opener versus Army (49-26), but NIU fell to 1-2 after losing to Kansas (45-42) and to Wisconsin (49-7). The Huskies split their next two with a victory over Cal Poly (47-30) and a loss to Central Michigan (48-41).
The team righted the ship after that though, as the Huskies did not lose again despite a few close calls. NIU barely escaped its road games with Buffalo (31-30) and Toledo (63-60).
The strong finish to the season gave NIU a 7-1 record in league action which tied Toledo for first in the West Division. The Huskies' victory in the high scoring head-to-head affair with the Rockets gave them control of the tie- breaker which sent the team to the MAC Championship Game to take on Ohio University. NIU erased a 20-point halftime deficit and won the conference championship game, 23-20, at Ford Field.
After securing its first MAC title in 28 years, NIU defeated Arkansas State (38-20) of the Sun Belt Conference in the GoDaddy.com Bowl to close out its 2011 season.
S 1 vs. Iowa S 8 vs. Tennessee-Martin S 15 at Army S 22 vs. Kansas S 29 vs. Central Michigan O 6 at Ball State O 13 vs. Buffalo O 20 at Akron O 27 at Western Michigan N 3 vs. Massachusetts N 14 vs. Toledo N 20 at Eastern Michigan
OFFENSE: WR Martel Moore WR Perez Ashford OG Logan Pegram
DEFENSE: DE Sean Progar DE Alan Baxter DT Nabal Jefferson LB Jamaal Bass CB Rashaan Melvin CB Demetrius Stone S Jimmie Ward S Dechane Durante
SPECIAL TEAMS: PK Matthew Sims P Ryan Neir
OFFENSE:Doeren had a superstar quarterback in Chandler Harnish in his first season as a head coach. Harnish's graduation opens up the opportunity for the athletic Jordan Lynch to show off his talents while running the offense. Lynch had decent passing statistics (19-of-26 for 179 yards and two TDs) in limited relief action, but his ability to run the ball is what separates him from the pack. The junior quarterback has taken 76 career rushing attempts for 608 yards and six TDs.
The Huskies also have a fresh face on the sidelines as Mike Dunbar was named the new offensive coordinator. Dunbar is a master of the spread-offense, but he learned NIU's system from last season to avoid forcing the players to start from scratch for the third time in as many years.
NIU's offense might take a small step backwards without Harnish and Jasmin Hopkins, last season's top option out of the backfield. The offensive line that allowed less than a sack per game in 2011 will have a new look with four new faces. The Huskies were 12th in the NCAA in scoring offense (38.3 points per game) and 11th in total offense (476 yards per game). Akeem Daniels, Jamal Womble, and Leighton Settle will form a committee of running backs until one shows he can handle taking the brunt of the carries.
The Huskies might have lost their starting quarterback and halfback, but they kept the talented WR tandem of Martel Moore and Perez Ashford. Moore had a breakout performance in 2011's bowl game with 224 yards and a touchdown on eight grabs. Ashford finished the season with 530 yards and three touchdowns on 47 catches. Tight ends Jason Schepler, Luke Eakes, and Tim Semisch will give Lynch plenty of targets to look for.
DEFENSE:NIU's defensive unit was up and down throughout the season but it managed to click at the perfect time. The Huskies held four of their last five opponents to 20 points or less. The defense returns eight starters from last season and also regained Devon Butler and Tyrone Clark, who both started at linebacker in 2010. Butler missed last season after suffering a gunshot wound in the spring of 2010. Clark was suspended for 2011, but he devoted his time to the scout team while he was banned from competition.
The Huskies return both starting corners and safeties along with three of four defensive linemen. The continuity and familiarity among the returners on the defensive side of the ball will be a huge plus in 2012.
SPECIAL TEAMS:Speedy sophomore Tommylee Lewis had some electrifying and game changing kick returns last year and finished the season with a 25.2-yard average. He will add returning punts to his duties as well. Mathew Sims set the program record with 124 points last season by converting 20-of-28 field goals and 64-of-66 extra points attempts. In addition to setting the single season record for points, Sims also put his name in NIU's history books by drilling a game winning 33-yard field goal on the final play of the MAC title game. Punter Ryan Neir is a hang time specialist. Opponents had to fair-catch 36 of his 62 punts last season.
OUTLOOK:The last team to repeat as MAC champion was Central Michigan in 2006-2007. A repeat of the offensive clinic put on by the Huskies in 2011 is highly unlikely considering they have a new quarterback, running back, offensive coordinator, and four new starting linemen. However, the 2012 starters are not going into a brand new system blind like last year's team.
"There's a lot more comfort within the system," Doeren said. "Last year, there was still a lot of learning going on with the first-year staff. I saw a few guys pressing and maybe needing to get the rust off at a few positions. We're not in pads yet, so there's not a ton you could see football-wise."
Doeren's second season at the helm begins with a neutral site clash with the Iowa Hawkeyes at Soldier Field in Chicago. NIU has Army and Kansas both scheduled for the second year in a row. The Huskies will try to avenge last season's, 45-42 loss to the Jayhawks on September 22, when they welcome Kansas to Brigham Field. The Huskies begin their conference schedule on September 29 when they host Central Michigan, which was the only team in the league to defeat NIU in 2011.
NIU's toughest challenges in MAC action will be the October 27 bout with Alex Carder and Western Michigan on the road and the rematch of last season's 123- point shootout with Toledo on November 14 at Brigham Field.
NIU has a very realistic chance of entering league play with a 4-0 record, especially if it takes down Iowa in the opener. The defense will really need to step up while the new look offensive unit builds chemistry. The Huskies have the skill and athleticism to be a dynamic team offensively once everything clicks into place. Defensive coordinators Jay Niemann and Ryan Nielsen need to develop the talent further for NIU to take the next step and become a premier mid-major program.
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor