The Northern Illinois Huskies And An Offense Even I Couldn't Screw Up

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

From my Ball State profile:

We've gone through 11 of 13 teams in our leisurely stroll through the MAC; only Ball State and Northern Illinois remain. And no two teams hammer home the point I've been making over and over in these profiles: that while anybody can win in the MAC, almost nobody can sustain wins in the MAC. In 2007, Northern Illinois went 2-10, dumped Joe Novak and hired Southern Illinois coach Jerry Kill. Meanwhile, in 2008, Ball State started 12-0, established temporary residency in the Top 25, and lost their coach, Brady Hoke, to San Diego State. And both were looking for new coaches again this offseason.

Kill was successful enough (18-6 in the bowl game, three bowl games) that he was 'called up' to the Big Ten; Minnesota hired him to replace the drastically unsuccessful Tim Brewster.  Meanwhile, after a 6-18 record in two seasons, Ball State dumped Stan Parrish and hired Elon coach Pete Lembo. NIU found a coach good enough to leave, and he left; a year later, Ball State found an experienced, old hand who wouldn't jump for a better job, and he wasn't good enough to keep the job. Life in the MAC in a nutshell.

After a thrilling nine-game win streak that saw NIU playing as well as almost anybody in the country in November, Kill took off to Minnesota, and the Huskies brought in Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren to head the Huskies. At first glance, this is a smart hire. There is almost nothing that can bring down the 2010 NIU offense, not with quarterback Chandler Harnish, a deep stable of receivers, and one of the most experienced lines in the country. But the defense loses almost as much as the offense returns, and Doeren's five seasons as Wisconsin D.C. could come in handy.

This being the MAC, the goal for NIU is simple: do well enough that you might have to hire yet another new coach in a few years. Doeren is young (39), salty, midwestern and relatively experienced. His is the perfect resume for a MAC head coach ... and in a few years, if things go well, it could likely be the perfect resume for a Big Ten coach as well. Life for a MAC school is like life in League One in English Soccer. You hope the talent you obtain does well enough to get you promotions and make more money, but you know that if you're successful, the talent will leave, and you'll have to find more. It is hopeful and depressing, socialist and capitalist. In the last decade, NIU has navigated the waters about as well as anybody (aside from that random, terrible 2-10 season), and they get the benefit of the doubt from me here: I have little doubt that Doeren was a solid hire ... and I have little doubt that the next guy they hire will probably be pretty good too.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 11-3 | Adj. Record: 11-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 44
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep at Iowa State 10-27 L 17.2 - 32.2 L
11-Sep North Dakota
23-17 W 19.3 - 31.8 L
18-Sep at Illinois 22-28 L 33.7 - 29.9 W
25-Sep at Minnesota 34-23 W 30.7 - 30.1 W
2-Oct at Akron 50-14 W 37.8 - 33.9 W
9-Oct Temple 31-17 W 40.1 - 28.3 W
16-Oct Buffalo 45-14 W 38.3 - 24.7 W
23-Oct Central Michigan 33-7 W 32.8 - 24.1 W
30-Oct at Western Michigan 28-21 W 33.5 - 21.9 W
9-Nov Toledo 65-30 W 51.3 - 30.4 W
20-Nov at Ball State 59-21 W 41.1 - 27.1 W
26-Nov at Eastern Michigan 71-3 W 50.5 - (-4.3) W
4-Dec vs Miami (Ohio)
21-26 L 31.8 - 33.2 L
18-Dec vs Fresno State 40-17 W 47.8 - 21.0 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 38.0 12 18.9 14
Adj. Points Per Game 36.1 11 26.0 50

Twenty-nine games into his tenure with Northern Illinois, Jerry Kill's overall record stood at 14-15. The 2010 season didn't exactly start beautifully. That they lost at two BCS conference teams was not, in and of itself, cause for alarm, of course; but they played quite poorly against Iowa State, particularly on defense, and they barely managed to sneak by FCS North Dakota. But then things began to click, and click, and click. They played better in a tight loss to Illinois, took down Kill's future Minnesota team, then took a flame-thrower to the MAC.

First Four Games (Adj. PPG): Opponents 31.0, Northern Illinois 25.3 (-5.7)
Next Four Games: Northern Illinois 37.3, Opponents 27.8 +(9.5)
Next Four Games: Northern Illinois 44.1, Opponents 18.8 (+25.3)

NIU was simply one of the best teams in the country, in any conference, late in the regular season. That they won nine in a row against the schedule they faced was not, in and of itself, impressive. That they won the games they way they did was spectacular. They were the MAC's version of Doersen's Wisconsin squad, grinding out video game scores late in the season; beating Eastern Michigan is no particular feat, but ... beating them 71-3? With an Adj. Scoring Margin of +54.8? That's something Auburn would have had trouble replicating.

Of course, that didn't stop them from serving as just the latest heavy favorite to lose the MAC title game. If you're a big favorite, and your name isn't Central Michigan, you're probably losing at Ford Field, and NIU did just that. Against  Miami (Ohio), the defense played its worst game since early-October, and some late-game heroics got Miami the win. Kill skipped up to Minneapolis, but interim coach Tom Matukewicz engineered a perfect mix of gameplan and motivation, and the Huskies finished the season by stomping a hole in Fresno State on Boise's blue field.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 35 29 44
RUSHING 25 29 26 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 46 31 55 29
Standard Downs 36 48 39 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 18 14 25 23
Redzone 47 43 55
Q1 Rk 21 1st Down Rk 44
Q2 Rk 67 2nd Down Rk 24
Q3 Rk 34 3rd Down Rk 14
Q4 Rk 10

NIU was one of the more deceptively run-heavy teams in the country last year. With a run-pass threat like Chandler Harnish (2,530 yards, 8.7 per pass, 65% completion rate, 21 TD, 5 INT; 910 pre-sack rushing yards, +9.4 Adj. POE), the immediate impression might be that he threw for more than 181 yards per game. He did not. With his wheels, a staff dedicated to the run, a running backs corps as good as almost anybody's in the country (combined Adj. POE for the RBs: +38.3, a startlingly good total), and the fact that NIU was typically leading games by a healthy margin, Harnish simply did not have to throw much to succeed.

It makes sense, then, that NIU would go after somebody who worked for Wisconsin, eh? NIU was, in many ways, the MAC version of Wisconsin, both in dominance and in footprint. The only problem: Doeren's new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada, had a different approach to offense as Indiana O.C. last year.

Indiana was quite often playing from behind, so that explains part of the run-pass ratios, but still, Canada's Indiana team took an entirely different stylistic approach to offense than NIU last season, and it will be interesting to see what changes are made. In Canada's NIU bio, Doeren says he has "great respect for [Canada's] ability to adapt his scheme to the strengths of his players," and if that's true, then he won't change much about a ground game that was, at times, spectacular last year.

Mind you, I'm not too worried about it either way. With the talent that returns, you could hand the offense over to Paul Myerberg, Chris Brown and me, and we could do some pretty great things with it.

It starts with Harnish, but we know about him. When he did throw, he was quite effective with it. And though he didn't pass an inordinate amount of time last year, we know he can make plays when he needs to; as good as NIU was on the ground, the offense was almost even more effective on passing downs. Just let Harnish roll out and either find an open man or run, and you're set.

Harnish has quite a few options in the passing game as well. Four of the top five targets return, and the each of the top three averaged, at worst, a great 9.4 yards per target. Youv'e got go-to man Willie Clark (602 yards, 14.3 per catch, 66% catch rate, 7 TD), possession receiver Martel Moore (525 yards, 13.1 per catch, 77% catch rate!, 4 TD), hit-or-miss big-play guy Nathan Palmer (532 yards, 18.3 per catch, 54% catch rate, 6 TD) and another interesting possession option in Perez Ashford (206 yards, 10.8 per catch, 73% catch rate). NIU's passing rankings (great success rates, solid explosiveness) suggest that a bit of NIU's per-target healthiness came from the level of the competition, but that's fine -- the level of competition doesn't really change this year. If Canada's tendency is to pass more, that might work out just fine.

Oh, and the offensive line. What's not to love about a unit that returns all five starters, 105 career starters, and three all-conference performers (tackle Trevor Olson, guard Joe Pawlak, center Scott Wedige)? NIU was Top 30 in both run blocking and pass protection, and there's no reason to think they will regress this fall.

Other tidbits:

  • Really, the only loss worth talking about is running back Chad Spann. The subject of a fascinating Matt Waldman series, Spann (1,388 yards, 5.4 per carrh, +18.1 Adj. POE, 22 TD) was spectacular in 2010. The saving grace for NIU, of course, is that his backups were quite strong too. Jasmin Hopkins (366 yards, 9.6 per carry, +8.5 Adj. POE, 2 TD) and Jordan Lynch (362 yards, 11.7 per carry, +11.3 Adj. POE), in particular, were ridiculously effective with the opportunities they received. Obviously their per-carry averages will go down when they get a larger portion of the load, but ... down to what, exactly? Six yards per carry? Something tells me NIU would live with that.
  • Almost no offense spread the love more than NIU in 2010. Four backup running backs combined for 10 carries per game on top of Spann's work load, and the top four receiving options were targeted between 16% and 20% of the time. That makes accounting for someone's departure (in this case, Spann and receiver Landon Cox) much easier, obviously. It also gives Canada a lot of toys to play with in his first season in DeKalb.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 66 57 69
RUSHING 69 44 85 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 65 79 59 67
Standard Downs 79 72 82 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 54 62 46 62
Redzone 26 17 35
Q1 Rk 106 1st Down Rk 82
Q2 Rk 67 2nd Down Rk 65
Q3 Rk 65 3rd Down Rk 58
Q4 Rk 31

The NIU defense was not quite as effective as the offense last year, but a) they were still quite good for a MAC team, and b) they got infinitely more effective as the game progressed. A track meet in the first half turned into a healthy NIU lead in the second. They had a few big-play problems against the run, and they had an efficiency problem against the pass, but they got by with some effective blitzing on passing downs.

The problem: there is a lot to replace. New defensive coordinator Jay Niemann doesn't have it nearly as easy as his counterpart Matt Canada. Niemann was last seen turning the Hardin-Simmons defense into one of the tougher per-play units in Division III; they allowed just 3.6 yards per rush and 5.6 yards per pass, and if NIU approaches anywhere near that in 2011, Niemann's a miracle worker.

Who's gone? Try four of the top six on the line, five of the top seven in the secondary and, due to extenuating circumstances, all of the top three linebackers. Second-team all-conference linebacker Alex Kube (58.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks) graduated, but the other two starters' absences are due to more recent developments. Tyrone Clark (57.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 4 INT) is sitting out the season "because of a personal situation. He will still practice with the team, however." My first guess is grades, but that is simply an uninformed guess. There's no guessing about the circumstances regarding Devon Butler's (60.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBU) absence: he got shot in March.

Jerry Kill's staff was great at giving reps to backups. Part of this was obviously because NIU won quite a few games by a huge margin, but it looks as if he had rather open rotations while games were in doubt too. Not only did the backup skill position players on offense see quite a bit of playing time, but so did the defense. In this case, that means that at least two of the three new starting linebackers have decent experience. Pat Schiller (15.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) made the most of his opportunities, and Jordan Delegal (29.5 tackles) saw the field quite a bit. Potential new middle linebacker Cameron Stingily (2.0 tackles) was good enough to play as a true freshman, even if he didn't play as much.

Other tidbits:

  • Two of the top three at both end and tackle are gone, but each position returns a potential star. End Sean Progar (29.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks) was solid last year, and tackle Nabal Jefferson (16.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks) has quite a bit of playmaking potential.
  • There is quite a bit to replace in the secondary, though free safety Tommy Davis (60.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 4 FR, 2 PBU) and corners Rashaan Melvin (31.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 4 PBU) and Jimmie Ward (17.5 tackles, 1 PBU as a freshman) should make the transition a bit smoother.

Northern Illinois's 2010 Season Set to Music

Because of the nine-game win streak, naturally, how about a little love for the incredibly underrated "Cloud Nine" by The Temptations? The lyrics are in no way related to the NIU season, but I make exceptions for songs this good.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Best MAC Offenses, 2006-10
1. 2007 Central Michigan (+8.1%, 21st overall in 2007)
2. 2010 Northern Illinois (+6.9%, 29th)
3. 2008 Central Michigan (+5.3%, 35th)
4. 2008 Buffalo (+4.2%, 40th)
5. 2008 Akron (+3.5%, 44th)
6. 2009 Central Michigan (+2.2%, 49th)
7. 2008 Bowling Green (+1.5%, 54th)
8. 2006 Central Michigan (+0.1%, 53rd)
9. 2009 Toledo (-0.4%, 61st)
10. 2007 Toledo (-1.0%, 60th)
16. 2006 Northern Illinois (-2.5%, 68th)
21. 2009 Northern Illinois (-3.0%, 73rd)
34. 2008 Northern Illinois (-6.0%, 89th)
58. 2007 Northern Illinois (-13.2%, 115th)

Jerry Kill relatively quickly made NIU's offense competent again, but the 2010 surge was still a bit unforeseen.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 78
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 104
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +11 / +9.0
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 13 (9, 3)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -5.8

The offense really will be fun to watch in 2011, but I have no idea what to make of the team for two reasons: 1) The defense is almost certainly going to regress, and 2) perhaps the two most well-stocked MAC teams not named Northern Illinois also reside in the MAC West. NIU gets WMU at home and Toledo on the road. Really, two small stretches will define NIU's 2011 season: the opening combination of Army-@Kansas, and the three game, Buffalo-Toledo-BGSU road trip in late-October and early-November. If the defense is competent early, they could quite easily start 2-0, but anything less than that could hint at trouble down the line. (Let's face it: at this moment in time, they're just better than Kansas and should be favored in that game unless they lose to a tricky Army squad.) Meanwhile, NIU should take down Buffalo, but Toledo's good and Bowling Green is tricky. Go 5-0 in these five games, and they're almost certainly in the MAC title game and winning 10 games again. But 1-4 or 2-3 are also in play -- that's how questionable the defense is.

The peripheral stats don't do a lot of favors to NIU either -- they haven't recruited at a high level, even for a MAC team, and they benefited both from YPP luck and fumbles luck. I see almost no way they avoid regression in 2011, but they were so far ahead of the rest of the conference as a whole that they could regress a bit and still be the best team. It all depends on how quickly Jay Niemann can make something of the defense.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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