Anthony Maddie lobbed the pigskin to his tight end Shane Wimann near the end zone. But a Western Illinois defender tipped the wobbling leather ball before it landed in the tight end's hands. Turnover on downs. Ballgame.
The Western Illinois Leathernecks fended off the Northern Illinois Huskies' comeback bid at Huskie Stadium on September 24, 2016. The FCS squad jumped out to a 28-7 over a MAC team coming off of its sixth-straight conference championship appearance, and pulled off the victory. As a result, Northern Illinois fell to 0-4, hitting rock bottom after reaching its peak just four years earlier. This wasn't supposed to happen. Not to a program that reached the heights the Huskies did in the early 2010s.
Northern Illinois fell to Wyoming, South Florida, and San Diego State in a tough Group of Five non-conference schedule to start 2016, but the loss to Western Illinois sent the entire town of DeKalb into a frenzy. After being labeled "Boise State East" and the next great Group of Five program years prior, the Huskies struggled to even notch a victory in the early stages of the 2016 season. When the going gets rough in the sport of football, the head coach often takes a lot of the flak from his surrounding fan base. That coach would be Rod Carey.
Carey's first game at the helm in Northern Illinois was the Orange Bowl at the conclusion of the 2012 season. The former offensive coordinator assumed head coaching duties after Dave Doeren departed for NC State, but Carey could not finish the Huskies' season on a high note. Northern Illinois fell to Florida State 31-10 on its biggest stage in history in a game where the scoreboard displayed a more lopsided outcome than the contest suggested.
Although Carey's squad would participate in each of the MAC Championship Games from 2013-15 and would hoist the 2014 conference crown, he was often criticized for failing to win bowl games, falling to talented Group of Five programs including Utah State, Marshall, and Boise State. His bowl record currently stands at 0-4.
But in 2016, Carey didn't even receive the opportunity to compete for a bowl victory. Despite a dreadful 0-4 start, the Huskies would rebound in conference play and finish 5-7 — the first team out of bowl season, by the Academic Progress Rating tiebreaker. Northern Illinois knocked off a talented Eastern Michigan team and competed with Toledo, showing several signs of rebirth and rejuvenation. But winning five of eight games to finish a lost season wasn't the result Northern Illinois needed. It would require a bounce-back, successful 2017.
With everything on the line, the program returned to form in the year where Rod Carey needed it most.
Things weren't always pretty for the red and black. The season commenced in DeKalb with a clash versus Boston College of the ACC. In a very winnable game against an Eagles team that panned out better than most predicted, Northern Illinois' defense looked phenomenal from the first whistle to the last tick of the clock. It was a sign of things to come later this season, and that Friday was the night the country was introduced to the Huskies' top talent — sophomore defensive end Sutton Smith. Although the unit forced nine punts, the Ryan Graham-led offense couldn't take advantage of the plethora of opportunities in the tightly-contested matchup.
Boston College kicked a game-winning field goal with just over two minutes remaining but Northern Illinois could not convert on its tying attempt just one drive later. The loss was brutal but it showed how dominant the Huskies' defense could be and that the former MAC contender could compete with Power Five programs once again. But little did the Huskies know the impact they'd have on the college football world two weeks later.
September 16, 2017. A 1-1 Northern Illinois team unloaded the buses at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska as double-digit underdogs. The Cornhuskers, who began the previous season with a 7-0 record, sat at 1-1 but battled lofty expectations from their vocal fan base.
On the opening drive, it didn't look as if the Huskies' defense could match the former Big Ten power's offense. Nebraska drove right down the field turf, facing a 2nd-and-3 at the 10-yard line. Tanner Lee threw a screen to the right side of the field but former All-American cornerback used his ball-hawk instincts to jump the route and return the ball 87 yards to put the Huskies up 7-0.
Several drives later, Lee tossed his second pick-six of the game and outside linebacker Jawuan Johnson captured the turnover and brought it to the Nebraska end zone, much to the displeasure of the tens of thousands of fans decked in red and white. 14-0.
Nebraska was booed into the locker room at halftime after failing to score against a MAC team that finished 5-7 just one year ago. But the Huskers would roar back and take a 17-14 lead. Then, Rod Carey called the drive that turned his career back in his favor.
Immediately following Nebraska's go-ahead touchdown, Northern Illinois deviated from its typically conservative, run and screen-heavy play-calling scheme and elected to go deep. Quarterback Daniel Santacaterina fired the ball down the right side line to Christian Blake, who snagged in the lob and ended up on the Cornhuskers' 28. The QB connected with his favorite target several plays later to set up a Jordan Huff run from two yards out. Northern Illinois reclaimed a 21-17 lead.
Northern Illinois' defense finished the job by forcing a turnover on downs in its own territory and intercepting Lee to seal a landmark victory. Sure, Nebraska is 4-7 now, but this was a difficult road win against a brand name program, especially for a Huskies team searching for its identity again.
Rod Carey was doused in a Gatorade bath as a result of the upset, as he improved to an unfathomable 4-1 against the Big Ten with the win. Is a MAC coach that performs that well against a power conference — arguably the best in college football — worthy of hot seat discussions? Considering his career record stands at 44-22 and his conference record is an off-the-charts 32-7, absolutely not.
Nebraska fired its athletic director and the program turned into chaos as a result, but Northern Illinois kept cruising week after week. The Huskies nearly knocked off a ranked San Diego State team on the road (but late, costly interceptions hindered the Huskies) and looked very dominant once the dawn of MAC play arrived.
With the exception of the Nebraska game, Carey's greatest work in 2017 was a home victory over Eastern Michigan. Down 14 with under eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Carey's team came to life and rattled off two quick scores to tie the Eagles, forcing three-straight three-and-outs to spark the comeback. The Huskies earned the second possession in overtime and scored a walk-off touchdown to win 30-27 in a pivotal game in the Huskies' season. The team showed incredible poise and as always, the defense cranked it into new gear in the second half, allowing the offense to gain rhythm late to force overtime.
Now, Northern Illinois is 8-3, 6-1 in the MAC with an outside chance of appearing in the conference title game in Detroit. After a 5-7 season and an offseason full of uncertainty, Carey proved he could rebuild Northern Illinois into a G5 power in no time.
But how'd he do it? The primary answer would be the defense. Northern Illinois' defense has been nothing short of phenomenal this season, ranking first in the nation in tackles for loss, second in the nation in sacks, and fielding a top 10 rushing defense.
It all starts up front. Defensive ends Sutton Smith and Josh Corcoran have been nightmares for quarterbacks and running backs alike in the backfield. And the linebacking corps runs deep. Although the unit has faced injuries here, Jawuan Johnson, Kyle Pugh (out for season), Alex Schwab, and Bobby Jones IV have all performed at a high level when healthy. Add cornerback Shawun Lurry to the mix, and it's easy to see why the Huskies rank among the best in numerous defensive categories.
A strong defense outweighs a strong offense in college football. It's why Alabama continues to win championships. NIU doesn't possess the strongest offense in college football, as the team has trotted out three different starting quarterbacks and a myriad of tailbacks this year, but the offense has been solid enough to earn several quality wins. Quarterback Marcus Childers is no Jordan Lynch but he's succeeded as a dual threat option and often makes smart decisions, throwing 14 touchdowns compared to three interceptions in 2017.
Despite a lack of recent recruiting success, Carey's fostered a great system at Northern Illinois, building on what Doeren established until leaving in 2012. The team knew exactly that building a blitz-heavy, wall of a defense and avoiding costly turnovers could quickly bring the team back into prominence. At 8-3, Northern Illinois will collide with 7-4 Central Michigan on Friday afternoon. No matter the result, it's safe to say Carey and the Huskies have exorcised the demons from 2016, and the five-year head coach — whose team has looked respectable in all 11 games this season — should remain in DeKalb for the foreseeable future.