UT’s MAC title game bid on the line at NIUWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The annual I-75 battle between the Rockets and the Falcons is Toledo’s traditional rivalry game. But save for season-long bragging rights and a shiny new trophy to put on display until the next meeting, that contest holds little weight in the context of each program’s Mid-American Conference championship hopes given that they’re in different MAC divisions.
A rivalry that has become more chippy and albeit more important for UT as of late is that of its yearly matchup with Northern Illinois, a MAC West Division opponent which has been the team that’s crushed the Rockets’ MAC title game hopes in each of the last two seasons.
NIU scored a total of 128 points in those contests with a 65-30 blowout home victory in 2010 and a 63-60 shootout win on the road in 2011, representing two of Toledo’s three MAC losses in its last 22 conference games.
“They’ve won two big football games because honestly, they [were more physical than] us and they beat us,” UT head coach Matt Campbell said. “So, I think our kids know that. We’ve got great respect for their program and what they do, but we’ve got great faith in who we are and where we’re at right now and we look forward to the challenge next Wednesday night.”
While the Falcons will always be the Rockets’ primary rival, the growing magnitude of UT’s yearly matchup with the Huskies cannot be understated, and certainly isn’t in DeKalb, Ill.
“I was told the first day on campus,” second-year NIU head coach Dave Doeren said on the rivalry at the Huskies’ weekly press conference on Nov. 8. “You know, when you have your press conference, tons of people walk up to you and congratulate you, and many of them said, ‘Hey, beat Toledo.’ And so kind of right away, I knew ‘Hey, this is a big game here.’
“It wasn’t something that I don’t think nationally people think of that game. But for [former NIU head coach Joe] Novak, that was one team I know that it was always him and Toledo for the league all the time, and Toledo obviously got a lot of those wins.”
Nearly five years after Novak retired, the story will be the same when the Rockets (8-2, 5-1 MAC) take on the Huskies (9-1, 6-0 MAC) at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb on Wednesday at 8 p.m. CT on ESPN2.
If UT wins, it will still need to defeat Akron (1-10, 0-7 MAC) at home on Nov. 20 to represent the MAC West Division in the MAC Championship at Ford Field on Nov. 30. If NIU wins, it will have the MAC title game bid locked up.
While Doeren said that he doesn’t have any bad blood or ill will towards the Toledo football program, his team’s annual meeting with the Rockets is one both NIU and its fan base particularly looks forward to.
On Northern Illinois’ official athletic website—niuhuskies.com—a promo for Wednesday’s game is the first thing visitors see when they go to the site. It encourages NIU fans to wear black to the “Senior Day” contest and features a video with highlights of the Huskies’ win over the Rockets in Toledo last year.
In addition, the rivalry took an odd and more chippy turn in last year’s contest, when Huskies’ sophomore linebacker Jamaal Bass jumped into a UT band member and knocked over another as he made his way onto the field at the Glass Bowl. With the band members left hospitalized with concussions, Bass ended up receiving a three-game suspension and was indicted on assault charges.
Add in that Toledo defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tom “Tuke” Matukewicz served on the Huskies’ coaching staff for the last four seasons prior to his arrival at UT, and there’s more than enough fuel for each team’s fire heading into Wednesday night’s matchup.
“They do a great job,” senior strong safety Jermaine Robinson said of NIU’s atmosphere. Robinson is tied for the MAC lead with four interceptions. “From the time we get there, we’re stuck in traffic trying to get in there. That’s how ready they’ll go for that game. And by the time we get out and warming up, their stadium’s already halfway full, so it’s up there. I mean, it’s for the [MAC] championship.”
Though UT holds a 29-10 edge over NIU in the series, including an 11-7 mark in DeKalb and an 18-3 mark in Toledo, the Rockets are 1-3 in their last four against the Huskies. Additionally, Northern Illinois is the MAC’s winningest program over the last 10 years (87-50) with 13 seniors that make up the winningest class in school history, also sporting the nation’s longest home win streak at 20 games.
“A big thing with this week is just senior leadership, myself included,” said senior linebacker Dan Molls, who leads the MAC and is tied for No. 1 in the nation with 132 total tackles this season. “We’ve really got to kind of take control of the team this week and just bring an extreme amount of focus and just prepare better than we ever have before.”
NIU is the MAC leader in scoring offense (40.6 ppg) and total offense (478 ypg) and No. 2 in the conference in scoring defense (17.9 ppg) and total defense (375.4 ypg). The game will feature the MAC’s top two rushers in junior running back David Fluellen and Huskies’ junior quarterback Jordan Lynch, who rank No. 2 and No. 5 in the nation in rushing yards, respectively. Lynch also leads the MAC in total offensive yards per game (351.7).
“It’s really a thing where, you know, it’s a family thing,” Fluellen said of playing at NIU. Fluellen has 12 touchdowns in 2012 and is tied for second in the NCAA with 1,381 rushing yards, averaging six yards per carry. “Everybody’s there. Your back’s against the wall. Everybody around you is not with you.
“That’s the kind of thing you want to live up for and [be] like, ‘All right. It’s us against them. Nobody here is with us, and we’re all we’ve got. We’ve got to go out there and do what we’ve got to do.’”
For Campbell, this year’s matchup with Northern Illinois will come down to the details, an area of focus the Rockets have struggled with in their last two meetings with the Huskies. UT gave up back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns against NIU in 2011 and converted just two third downs in a 2010 matchup where it trailed 28-0 at halftime.
“I think that their ability to show up from the get-go has been one of the things that’s probably been the most impressive about this Northern Illinois team,” Campbell said. “And I think when you look at us, I remember being on that field there two years ago and we didn’t show up. We didn’t show up until about halftime.
“So I think it’s a great lesson for all of us involved, and there’s a lot of our guys that were involved in that football game. But again, this game will be decided on the details.”