I could use this space to write about the Michigan defense and how it gave up 17 points and more than 400 yards of offense to Northern Illinois. I could use this space to write about how sick Chad Henne and Mike Hart are going to be or how Jason Avant kicked off his Biletnikoff Award candidacy with a performance that Terrell Owens might have spiked the star for. I could even use this space to write about video games and Natty Light.
But I have to be honest: I was pretty happy with the game this Saturday. I wasn’t thrilled, and I’m not ready to start the Heisman campaign for Steve Breaston quite yet. But this team we played was pretty damn good. I don’t think a lot of people — or, rather, I don’t think a lot of people in Ann Arbor — know anything about Northern Illinois.
So let’s start with the easy stuff. The school is located in DeKalb, Ill., which, as you might guess, is in the northern third of Illinois. DeKalb is west of Chicago, just 50 miles south of Wisconsin. The school’s mascot is the Husky, which was obvious if you watched the player introductions. The coach is Joe Novak, and Novak coached with Lloyd Carr at the University of Illinois. Carr has nothing but praise for the MAC coach. “I don’t think anybody in this country’s done a better job coaching than Joe has,” Carr said of Novak last week.
But there’s a lot of stuff about the Huskies that may not be quite as simple as mascots, coaches and cities. For instance, while watching the game on Saturday, you could probably tell that running back Garrett Wolfe was a pretty good back. It didn’t take very long, since Wolfe carried the ball for 23 yards on his first two touches. And if that wasn’t enough, he really cleared matters up on the next drive. The junior took the ball from quarterback Phil Horvath, bounced it to the outside and made Michigan cornerback Grant Mason look silly on his way to the house. When Wolfe scampered down the left sideline and into the north endzone, you could almost hear the Michigan faithful sighing, “Oh, no. Not again this year.”
But you wouldn’t know from that 76-yard run that Wolfe’s 179 all-purpose yards — 148 of which came on the ground — aren’t that unusual. Michigan was lucky to hold him to just 179 yards. Last year, Wolfe averaged 182.2 yards per game. So give the Wolverines credit for 3.2 yards. He’s only 5-foot-7, 177 pounds, but the guy is a stud. He ran for well over 1,600 yards last year on a team that used two running backs. The team’s second back, senior A.J. Harris, gained 66 yards on his own Saturday.
You might have heard by now that Michigan has never lost to a MAC school, but that shouldn’t take anything away from Northern Illinois, either. This team has surprised a lot of people in the last five years.
The Huskies lost 23 straight games from 1996-1998. Over those three years — Novak’s first three — they totaled three wins. Since then, Northern Illinois has had two six-win seasons, followed by a year with eight, then a miraculous 10 and a modest drop to nine wins. That’s almost as many victories over the last three years as the mighty Wolverines.
But you’re thinking, “This is the MAC. They don’t play any good teams.” That’s another interesting thing about the Huskies. They schedule tough nonconference games. This year they play Michigan and Northwestern before the MAC season. Two years ago, they had a breakout season with wins over Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State. And the Alabama game was in Tuscaloosa. They’ve been ranked as high as 10th in the BCS and finished 27th last year. In each of the past three seasons, Northern Illinois has earned a share of the MAC West title.
This was not a team of ragged dogs. I realize that most people expected Michigan to make the Huskies sit down and roll over, but a little research about Northern Illinois makes it clear that the Wolverines had their hands full. No game is a gimme in college football, and Michigan fans can’t expect no-hitters every week.
Just ask Oklahoma — which lost 17-10 on Saturday to Texas Christian at home.
— Herbert can be reached at email@example.com.