Tate: If NIU can do it ...
It was 2003, nine years ago, when Northern Illinois rocked the football world by defeating Maryland, Alabama’s Crimson Tide (yes, the same) and Iowa State in a 10-2 football season.
That focused attention on Joe Novak’s DeKalb operation, and they’ve come to be perceived as one of the nation’s overachieving teams.
Sure, they’ve lost 11 of 13 to the Big Ten, but they’re extremely competitive, falling to Iowa 18-17 this season and 28-22 at Illinois in 2010. After Saturday’s win, the Huskies are on an 18-for-19 roll in the Mid-American Conference.
How are they doing it? Former administators and media followers offer interesting observations. Let me enumerate their thoughts.
— Admissions welcome marginal students, including junior college transfers, and they tend to stay eligible.
— Novak and Jerry Kill found a niche in Chicago athletic circles, Kill pinpointing speedy, lighter athletes who have the potential to grow. Kill brought key staffers with him for a three-year term, and called his weight coach most important.
— President John Peters has supported a strong investment in athletics, as shown by facilities and the budget.
— The Huskies schedule bigger programs and enjoy their underdog role, beating Purdue in 2009, Minnesota and Fresno State in 2010, Army twice, and Kansas last month. Now they’re headed for their fifth straight bowl game.
Credit Northern Illinois for making the most of their opportunities.
You may recognize a contrast here. The Illini must be overtaking UCLA (5-2 with a win over Nebraska) for the dubious dishonor as Yahoo! Sports’ “most underachieving team” of the decade, having produced just one first down in the second half of Saturday’s 45-0 loss at Michigan.
Down 17-0 at the break, the UI’s first six possessions backfired with (1) a first-down interception, (2) a 7-yard loss, (3) a lost fumble, (4) a 15-yard penalty, (5) two completed passes for minus yardage and (6) a sack. That’s when I boarded the elevator and lost track in the rain.
The astonishing second-half stats showed Illinois with 13 net yards — passing AND rushing — on 23 plays, averaging roughly a half-yard per play. The downfield pass has been virtually forgotten, three UI wide receivers catching three balls for three yards.
Illinois is now averaging approximately 9 points per game in a 9-game Big Ten losing streak dating to a 41-20 defeat of Indiana last October.
This Indiana club, like Illinois, is 0-3 in the Big Ten as it arrives here for homecoming in two weeks. But the Hoosiers are producing points and have outscored Illinois 105-21 in Big Ten play. They threatened both Michigan State and Ohio State the last two weeks, coming within 52-49 of the Buckeyes with two touchdowns in the last 1:40.
The right stuff
Kentucky’s continued recruiting of so many one-and-done basketball recruits is unsettling to competitors, but John Calipari’s tactics are well within NCAA rules.
UConn is ineligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament because so many Huskie players left in bad academic standing. In Kentucky’s case, it seems that these athletes are not in violation of the academic progress rule when they leave.
So here we go again. Kentucky has commitments for the November signing period from a trio of top five recruits: 6-6 Michigander James Young and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron. And Calipari is in the thick of it for Nos. 3 and 6, who hail from Texas and California.
It is extremely difficult for the best players in the Commonwealth to get a scholarship from the state university. Calipari operates from coast to coast, and beyond.
This is their fourth No. 1 class in five years. In basketball, this is Kentucky’s World. Everybody else is just passing through.
— Rallying Louisiana Tech, now 5-1, came within a failed two-point conversion at :38 of tying Texas A&M (5-1) in a 59-57 thriller.
— High-ranked unbeatens dwindled by two when South Carolina and West Virginia tumbled. That’s two less for Ohio State, Kansas State and Notre Dame to worry about as these teams carrying Midwestern hopes squeezed by.