It's here: conference play. This is the arena that Northern Illinois dominated last season. These are the games that mean everything, now that an outside chance at something more than the Little Caesars Bowl is gone.
This is the time that the Huskies will rule.
Or is it?
It sure seemed the safe bet four weeks ago, before Northern went out and proved that its thin defense was actually a piece of rice paper.
But now that is all in doubt thanks to a quarter off against Army (yes, I am sticking with the near collapse argument, especially when Ball State managed to trounce them. You give up 20 points in the 4th quarter, even in a game you have at hand, you deserve to be called out for it), an actual collapse against Kansas (which proceeded to give up 1,000,000 yards to Georgia Tech the next week. And here we thought that Northern Illinois had a fantastic offense), and then another 30-point defensive effort against FCS' Cal Poly. You can forgive the Wisconsin game, if only because it seems no one will be able to stop the Badgers.
It isn't a pretty picture now, is it?By the numbers, the Huskies have surrendered the most yards on defense on average in the MAC. That is 483 and change to be close to exact.
That is also 111th out of 120 teams in the FBS.
To drive it further, it is worse than Western Kentucky (0-3), worse than Florida Atlantic (0-3), worse than Army (1-3), and worse than New Mexico State (1-3). It is even worse than Minnesota, which lost to both New Mexico State, and then North Dakota State, another FCS school, and it wasn't even close. Hi, Jerry!
There has to be some bright spot, right?
Maybe Alan Baxter, who has registered five tackles for loss (26 yards), 1.5 sacks (13 yards) and a fumble recovery. Not bad for a guy who missed the Wisconsin game.
Maybe Pat Schiller, who is second on the team in tackles with 33, and has been named one of the defensive players of the week for the Huskies three times. He also has five tackles for loss and a sack on the year.
And Rashaan Melvin, who was originally a walk-on with the Huskies, and was their most experienced corner entering the season, has played about as well as you could expect for someone who had barely started prior to this year.
But that you have to reach that far for a compliment is part of the problem. There is no depth and the talent at some of the positions has yet to develop.
Plus the Huskies have had to deal with two triple option teams and that hasn't really set them up for the standard offenses they will be facing (it has also probably depressed the stats a little for the defense, and caused some of the yardage issues, but that doesn't explain everything wrong when Northern doesn't have the ball).
On the bright side, Northern Illinois begins the conference season against Central Michigan and Kent State, the two worst offenses in the league.
The opener against Central Michigan will be especially fun as the Chippewas have a minus-5 turnover margin, something that, if it continues, could have Northern feeling a bit better about its defense in a hurry.
You can't fix four weeks of futility in just one outing, but this could be a start.
After last week got the offense back on track, there should be little to worry about in this one. Central has had exactly one good half against an FBS opponent this year, and it was Kentucky. That is the same Kentucky team that struggled against Western Kentucky, that was embarrassed by Florida.
Northern Illinois is no Florida (they are missing that decided schematic advantage), or Michigan State for that matter, but if the Spartans can get almost 500 yards of offense against Central Michigan, the Huskies should be able to roll at least 350.
So it will be up to the defense to look slightly less than anemic Saturday. Will there be another fourth quarter let down?
I am voting 'No', which is why I think the Huskies will cover the 8.5 point line.