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Assessing the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Rod Carey Era at NIU

Taking over prior to the 2012 season’s Orange Bowl, Carey earns an extension to stay in DeKalb until 2022.

Duke v Northern Illinois Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

On November 1, it was announced that Northern Illinois head coach Rod Carey received an extension to stay in DeKalb up until July 1, 2022. According to the Northern Star, this contract actually was negotiated back in January 2018 despite its recent revelation to the public.

Per the Northern Star, Carey’s new contract will pay a base salary of $2.4 million distributed over the next four years, before bonuses are taken into account. In 2018, Carey ranked fourth among MAC coaches (behind Jason Candle, Tim Lester, and John Bonamego) with a season salary of $633,460.

Currently, Northern Illinois boasts a 7-3 record, sitting just one win away from clinching the program’s seventh MAC Championship Game appearance in nine seasons. Since taking over the program to coach the Orange Bowl at the end of the 2012 season, Carey has compiled a 51-27 record. These 51 wins catapult Carey into fourth all-time in NIU coaching wins, behind George Evans (1929-54), Howard Fletcher (1956-68), and Joe Novak (1996-07).

If Carey makes it through the 2021 season, he will have many opportunities to rise up in the rankings. By the end of the 2021 season, Carey would have coached the Huskies for nine full seasons. Nine years is a long time for a MAC coach, considering most either get promoted for exceeding expectations or fired for failing to meet program objectives. The exception is Frank Solich, who has been manning the Ohio sidelines since 2005. Other than Solich, no current MAC coach was employed by their current program prior to 2012.

Despite Carey’s success, Northern Illinois fans are often highly critical of the team’s performance during his tenure. The six-straight MAC Championship appearances from 2010-15 and the 2012 Orange Bowl bid perhaps spoiled the fans, but here’s what has gone right and what has gone wrong in Carey’s six seasons with the Huskies.

Good: Defeating MAC teams

Carey’s 38-8 (.826) record in the MAC is absolutely ludicrous. The coach wins more than four out of five games against conference opponents. This winning percentage is comparable to Nick Saban’s SEC record at Alabama, 79-13 (.859), or Dabo Swinney’s ACC record at Clemson, 68-16 (.810).

Even during Carey’s 5-7 season in 2016, the team still finished 5-3 in conference play. Outside of that season — the only full season Carey has coached and won under eight games — the Huskies have won at least six conference games each year. Currently, Northern Illinois is atop the MAC West with a spotless 6-0 conference record.

Bad: Defeating Central Michigan

Every team seems to have that one opponent it always seems to lose to. For example, did you know North Carolina is 6-0 against Pitt since the Panthers joined the ACC? Northwestern is 3-0 against Michigan State in its last three and hasn’t lost to the Spartans since 2013.

For Northern Illinois, that team is Central Michigan. The Huskies benefitted from a down year for the Chippewas, which currently sits in the gutter of the FBS at 1-10. With a 24-16 win over Central Michigan back in October, Carey’s record against the Chippewas improved to 2-4. However, since Rod Carey took over the Huskies, 2016 is the only year when Central Michigan finished with a better record (6-7) than NIU (5-7). Despite that statistic, the Chippewas rolled through the Huskies for four-straight seasons from 2014-17. The Chippewas are responsible for exactly half of Carey’s conference losses.

Good: Defeating Big Ten teams

One of the most notable measures of success during Carey’s tenure is his unquestionable success against Big Ten programs. The Huskies dropped a Week 1 road game at Iowa this year, 33-7, although the halftime score was only 3-0.

But before kickoff weekend, Carey had the Big Ten’s number. Now, the NIU coach is 4-2 against Big Ten opponents. Carey’s four wins came against Iowa (2013), Purdue (2013), Northwestern (2014), and Nebraska (2017). The only other loss was a seven-point road defeat in 2015 to the defending national champions, No. 1 Ohio State.

Lately, Carey’s defenses have battled it out against the Big Ten. In the Nebraska game, the Huskies won primarily because of two pick-sixes in the first half, and the defense held the Cornhuskers to 17 points. Against Ohio State, NIU only allowed Cardale Jones’ Buckeyes to register 20 points in the Horseshoe. The defense was also instrumental when Northern Illinois held Northwestern to just 15 points in the 2014 victory.

Bad: Bowl games

Northern Illinois’ competitive season seems to end once the MAC Championship Game is over each year.

Carey’s first game as the Huskies’ head coach was the most important game in program history: the 2012 Orange Bowl. Northern Illinois lost to ACC champion Florida State, 31-10 in the BCS matchup. Even as the bowl opponents eased up, the Huskies continued their tradition of folding in mid-to-late December. The current bowl results under the head coach are:

  • 2012 Orange Bowl: Florida State, 31-10, L
  • 2013 Poinsettia Bowl: Utah State, 21-14, L
  • 2014 Boca Raton Bowl: Marshall, 52-23, L
  • 2015 Poinsettia Bowl: Boise State, 55-7, L
  • 2017 Quick Lane Bowl: Duke, 36-14, L

Last year’s bowl game against Duke was well-remembered for horrendous play-calling, which included arguably the worst fake punt attempt in college football history — a 4th-and-18 punt from the team’s own end zone. Later in the game, the Huskies ran a fake field goal which was as equally unimpressive as the fake punt.

The 2014 and 2015 bowls are ones Huskie fans would like to forget. Both times, NIU was paired up against one of the best Group of Five teams and yielded 50 points in embarrassing fashion. The most winnable matchup was the 2013 one. That season, Northern Illinois started 12-0 before losing the MAC title game to Bowling Green and falling to Utah State — causing the program to change from a BCS hopeful in November to unranked come January.

Good: Defense

On October 28, Northern Illinois won a football game scoring just seven points. The Huskies traveled across the country to Provo, UT and stifled BYU’s offense in a 7-6 slugfest. That win was very on-brand for the Rod Carey era.

Previously mentioned, the Huskies bring out the best in their defense against Big Ten teams. While the unit typically suffers in bowl games, the defense consistently produces stars and FBS-leading statistics.

Last season, Northern Illinois led the nation in tackles for loss. This year, the Huskies currently rank first in the FBS with 38 total sacks. Additionally, Northern Illinois has fielded a top-30 points per game defense in each of the last two seasons.

The unit has produced a litany of All-Americans, especially for a MAC team. In 2013, free safety Jimmie Ward landed a spot as a Third Team AP All-American and was later selected as the San Francisco 49ers’ first round draft pick. Two years later, cornerback Shawun Lurry led the nation in interceptions, good enough for a Third Team AP All-American spot and a First Team All-American spot by Phil Steele and the FWAA.

Northern Illinois’ most recent All-American is none other than current starting defensive end Sutton Smith. Smith was a consensus All-American in 2017, receiving a Second Team selection by the AP and a First Team selection by Walter Camp and the FWAA. His 14.0 sacks led the nation last season, while his 9.0 sacks rank seventh nationally this year.

Bad: Down Field Passing

It’s been a long time since Northern Illinois employed a gunslinger in the pocket. Even Jordan Lynch, a bronze medalist in the 2013 Heisman race, made his mark on the country by his rushing stats. Any pass longer than a screen has been a struggle for years in DeKalb, leading Northern Illinois to settle for call over-conservative play-calling.

Despite a 7-3 record, Northern Illinois is currently fourth-to-last in the country in passing yards per attempt at 4.9. The only teams with a more abysmal number in this category share abysmal records — Central Michigan (1-10), Rutgers (1-9), and UTSA (3-7).

Northern Illinois hasn’t finished in the top half in passing yards per attempt since 2013, and the number seems to decrease year by year.

Current quarterback, Marcus Childers, has played in 22 games, yet his career-high in passing yards is 278. In 10 games in 2017, Childers has only passed for over 200 yards once, during a mid-September loss at Florida State. He has displayed some mobility, rushing for 169 yards in a win over Ohio.