Midseason MAC Grades: How Northern Illinois went south

It is time for Pat Schiller and the Huskies to splash some water on their faces in order to wake up from a tough first half.

We're six weeks in. Most the teams have played six games, so this is the perfect time to dole out some midseason grades. All grades are final but protests may be submitted to the instructor, although this rarely helps.

Offense: If there is one thing for certain, it is that other than the Wisconsin game, Northern Illinois has managed to put some points on the board. Other than the loss to the Badgers, who look like they might be playing for the National Championship this season, the Huskies have scored at least 40 points in all of their games.

But that was to be expected. The Huskies still had Chandler Harnish under center and a wealth of options running the ball, including Jasmin Hopkins. Plus almost every offensive lineman, from Scott Wedige to Joe Pawlak, was nominated for a possible postseason award.

Through the first six games, Northern Illinois has duplicated last year's effort in the running game. The Huskies have averaged 213.5 yards per game, including the dismal 64 yard effort against the Badgers. Save that game, they would be just about where they were last season.

The passing game has improved because of the continued success on the ground and the strength of the line. Harnish has been sacked just five times this season, while throwing 175 passes. Even with how badly things went against Wisconsin, the Badgers were able to get to the quarterback just once. By the end of the year, the line might have bettered last season's 13 sacks allowed.

The Huskies have turned the ball over nine times and that is part of the reason for the unforgivable loss to Central Michigan. So that brings down the final grade just a tad.

Grade: B+

Special Teams: Here is your wow stat of the day. Northern Illinois has allowed just a single punt return all season, on 20 punts. That is impressive punt coverage and nice kicking by Ryan Neir.

The Huskies also have three blocked punts to their credit. As a unit, the punt guys are bringing it.

On the kickoff side, Northern has yet to allow a touchdown on a return and opponents are usually starting inside the 30 yard line. You would like to have seen more than three touchbacks all year though.

On kick returns, the longest all season has been just 36 yards, which isn't going to set up great field position. Not that the offense needs it, but imagine if Harnish and company had to go just 50 yards rather than 70 every time. Still, the performance isn't so bad as to grade them down. Just don't expect any bonus points.

As for kicking, Mathew Sims has done a great job, missing just one kick inside 40 yards, and making all but one extra point on 27 tries. The missed field goal came against Central Michigan but wouldn't have made a difference in the final outcome. And you can't fault Sims for the rest of the sins of his team that day, especially so when he finished 4-for-6 with the other miss coming from 50 yards.

Grade: B-

Defense: D's might get degrees, but this group is pretty close to failing.

There are two schools of thought on the defensive side. One, they stink and there is no excuse that can make up for that. Or two, scheduling has some to do with why the defense isn't better than it is after six games.

If Northern Illinois doesn't play Army and Cal Poly, the numbers would immediately have been better. Triple option teams are going to gain ground. They are going to scratch out yards, because that is what they are good at. You will rarely stop them cold, as you might with a normal offense.

Plus playing two triple option teams doesn't make your defense any better for the rest of the season. You have to work twice as hard in practice just to be good enough to play one opponent. You don't get the benefit of all that work carrying over into the rest of the games this year. There is some skills that can be applicable, but in general, most of the technique you use against the triple option isn't going to help you stop a Wisconsin.

Then again, nothing is going to stop a Wisconsin this season, as every one of the Badgers' opponents has seen. When you have a game like Wisconsin on your schedule, you are going to get burned.

Give the Huskies credit for shooting for the moon against one of the best teams annually in college football. They just caught them in a year when they are one of the best five teams in the country.

A lot of the issues have to do with lack of experience on the field, and that takes time and repetition to overcome. The Huskies just haven't had that, because of some of the scheduling factors.

Even with all the trouble, they have forced eight turnovers, slightly off of last season's pace. That could improve with Buffalo, Ball State and Eastern Michigan still on the schedule. But at the same time, three of those takeaways came just this past week against Kent State.

There have also been bright spots from Pat Schiller, Sean Progar and Ron Newcomb. Jordan Delegal has been good in short pass coverage and Demetrius Stone is one of the few bright spots in the defensive backfield.

But overall this is a unit that has had multiple letdowns in the fourth quarter and through entire games. With two of the biggest MAC games yet to come, there are some huge "Needs Improvements" on the horizon.

Grade: D+

Overall: This team isn't that far off from where we thought they would be before the season began. The offense looks great. The defense, not so much.

Did we think that the defense would cost them a game against Kansas? No.

Did we think that the offense wouldn't be enough to beat Central Michigan, no matter how bad the defense got? No.

But overall, Dave Doeren hasn't done a terrible job with the team he was given. And there is something to be said for that. At 3-3 and 1-1 in conference, the Huskies still have a shot at both a bowl game and potentially a division title. It will be a matter of showing up against Western Michigan and Toledo on both sides of the ball, and not taking the rest of the league lightly, no matter how bad they looked in the previous game.

The 9-3 preseason prediction will be a stretch, given that I assumed the Huskies would lose at least one of the games against the Broncos or the Rockets. But 8-4 is not out of the realm of possibility, which would be a triumphant season given all that has happened through the first half.

Midterm Grade: C+

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