Though Bowling Green is Toledo’s arch rival, the Rockets have had many physical games the past several years against another Mid-American Conference opponent with a distaste for UT football. That team is MAC West Division rival Northern Illinois, who visits the Glass Bowl on Nov. 1.
“I honestly believe that everybody shoots at Toledo as their rival,” Toledo head coach Tim Beckman said. “Everybody plays us as good as they possibly can play, and we try to do the same thing [with] everybody we play. Yes, Northern Illinois has talked about this being a rival game because they’ve been a great program and Toledo’s been a great program. So when the two collide, it should be a great game.”
The Huskies’ (5-3, 3-1 MAC) rivalry with the Rockets (5-3, 4-0 MAC) is not just due to the fact that they both compete in the same division, but also because of UT’s consistent success over Northern Illinois University. Toledo leads the series 29-9 and is 18-2 against NIU in the Glass Bowl. However, the Huskies have taken two out of the last three against the Rockets in the series, including a 65-30 blowout in DeKalb, Ill. last season.
NIU won last year’s matchup convincingly by racking up 584 yards of total offense. Of that total, 422 of those yards were on the ground as Northern Illinois averaged 7.8 yards per carry and had seven rushing touchdowns. The victory gave the Huskies sole possession of first place in the MAC West Division over UT, ending Toledo’s hopes of getting to the MAC Championship at Ford Field.
“Oh yeah, it’s been talked about quite a bit,” Beckman said in response to how much last season’s defeat has been discussed amongst his team. “And I’m sure they talked about it down there, [even though] they have a new coaching staff. Yeah, our players understand what that game was all about last year and that we didn’t perform at our level. As a team and as a coaching staff, we need to step it up and be ready for those types of games.
“It was our first opportunity in being in a game like that, and now we’ve got another opportunity, and that’ll be this year’s opportunity.”
Senior right tackle John Morookian is one of the Rockets’ seniors who started in last season’s debacle at NIU and wants payback.
“It’s a big game for revenge,” Morookian said. “I mean, if someone’s not saying we’ve got to have revenge on [their] team then they’re lying, because what happened last year, we didn’t play our game. We can’t have that happen again. It was kind of sad and pathetic how we came out, so we’ve got to turn it around this year. We’ve got to change it up, and I know all my teammates are going to come out and we’re going to play hard and give it all we’ve got.”
One bright spot in last year’s matchup was senior running back Adonis Thomas, who had a game-high 152 yards on 10 carries with two touchdowns, accounting for all but 42 of UT’s rushing yards against Northern Illinois. Thomas will likely have more help this time around as Toledo is coming off a 49-28 win over Miami (Ohio) in which he, senior running back Morgan Williams and sophomore running back David Fluellen combined for 230 yards rushing on 37 carries with four touchdowns.
The Huskies and Rockets rank first and second in the MAC in scoring offense, averaging 38.5 and 36.5 points per game, respectively. On the ground, NIU ranks second in the conference with 244.2 yards per game, while UT is fourth with 186.8 rushing yards per contest. Leading Northern Illinois’ potent offense is senior quarterback Chandler Harnish, who racked up 311 yards of total offense and two touchdowns against Toledo in 2010.
Beckman met Harnish in the spring at the Touchdown Club of Columbus and came away impressed. Along with junior wide receiver Eric Page, Harnish was a nominee for one of the club’s awards, which named him as the 2010 MAC Player of the Year.
“What a classy kid,” Beckman said. “I can see why he’s won a lot of football games as a college football player.”
Defensively, the Rockets are tied for eighth in the country with 19 turnovers gained this season, sporting the MAC’s second-best rush defense (116.6 yards per game) while also ranking fourth in the conference in total defense (363.1 yards per game). Senior cornerbacks Desmond Marrow and Taikwon Paige are tied for the team lead with two interceptions each this year, with Marrow earning MAC West Division Defensive Player of the Week honors in each of the past two weeks.
“I’ve coached corners a long time in my life, coached secondary a long time, and he’s as good as I’ve been around,” Beckman said of Marrow. “He does a great job, and his commitment to the team — we can talk about stats, two picks and making great plays and tackles and those sorts of things — but his commitment to come back for his sixth year after having two serious injuries just proves he loves the game and he loves to help lead. He just does so much for us. It can’t even be explained.”
Marrow and Paige will be counted on to help contain Harnish, who leads the MAC with 304.4 yards of total offense per game. And while this contest means a lot to Toledo personally, UT knows the only way to guarantee its goal of reaching the MAC Championship in Detroit is to win every conference game, something the Rockets didn’t do last year.
“This is like a smaller version of the SEC,” Beckman said. “Every game is huge, and you have to be ready and prepared to be able to be victorious.”
Kickoff for the Nov. 1 game between Toledo and Northern Illinois is slated for 7 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN2.