It's said that getting to the top is hard, and that staying on top is even harder. For the Northern Illinois Huskies (5-3, 3-1 Mid-American Conference), they've had an amazing climb to the top of the MAC. Over the last five years, they've seen multiple coaching changes, several top 25 rankings, a Heisman Trophy candidate, five straight conference championship appearances and one BCS bowl appearance.
The Huskies have managed to stay atop the MAC mountain since 2011. But it's a climb they started way back in 1996 with the hire of coach Joe Novak. A sherpa-less Novak put this program on his back and started a long trek towards stability and success for the team from DeKalb. The Novak lead Huskies grabbed headlines and hearts in 2003 when they opened the season with wins over no. 15 Maryland and no. 21 Alabama. While that team ultimately failed to win the conference title, it put the Huskies on the map.
While NIU never did make it to the top during Novak's tenure, they moved even closer to it under Jerry Kill who took over as head coach in 2008. In 2010, NIU was minutes away from finally planting their flag at the conference summit as MAC champions. But the Miami RedHawks managed to complete a fourth-and-20 from their own 38-yard line with under two minutes remaining in the game and NIU leading 21-20. A RedHawks touchdown followed two plays later and NIU fell 26-21.
But finally in the 2011 season, first year head coach Dave Doeren exorcised those past demons and NIU had finished it's long climb to the top with a conference championship win over Ohio. Championships followed in 2012 and 2014, along with an appearance in 2013. The Huskies have undoubtedly conquered the hardest aspect of todays sports world. Staying on top.
But it's a fans right to never feel truly comfortable with their team. It only takes a couple of losses for doubt to creep in. And three losses in a row is cause fore down right panic.
The Huskies first loss this year to no. 1 Ohio State actually had the opposite reaction. It was a confidence booster and a nice showcase nationally for the program as NIU hung with the national champions in a hard fought 20-13 loss. The offense faltered badly, but that was justifiable as they were facing the powerhouse Buckeye's in Columbus.
Northern Illinois Huskies vs. Toledo Rockets football preview: Talkin' sMACk!
Can the Huskies win their sixth straight against the unbeaten Rockets?
Yet just a week later, NIU again stumbled again at moving the ball against a P5 program, Boston College. The Eagles boasted a great defense, yet were a very beatable team. NIU played another good game on defense themselves, but had nothing working for them when they had the ball. The Huskies fell again 17-14. Real offensive concerns started to take hold regardless of the quality of defense they faced.
If the Huskies have had a thorn in their side in the MAC recently, it's been Central Michigan. The Chippewas broke NIU's home winning streak of 28 games in 2014, and in 2015 they were at it again. With the Huskies offense in full disarray now, CMU dealt the Huskies their third loss in a row on a rainy, messy game in Mount Pleasant 29-19. Drew Hare had his worst game as a Huskie and the coaching staff looked lost. Panic had now set in. Huskie fans were left with a lot of doubt.
Things now of major concern: 1) A young offensive line struggling 2) a quarterback seemingly had lost his confidence 3) a coaching staff without answers or adjustments.
Was the losing streak was just a team finding their identity? A glitch in the machine? Or this the a team that's been a tad over-rated? How did so many questions come up when this years version of NIU football should have been even better than last years conference championship squad?
Success can be difficult for some to deal with. Success leads to expectations. Inevitably, expectations lead to failed expectations. Because of all those questions with the offense, there's no real faith in the quality of this Huskies team. Because of their recent success, conference losses are now just failed expectations. And there's a limit on how many losses fans will accept. A loss to Toledo will have some fearing a general downward trend for the program. The beginnings of a slow undoing of the programs hard gained success. If not a downward trend, than at best a plateau.
Tuesday's game is more than a big game for just undefeated Toledo. For NIU, it's about their status as the conference's top team. It's about NIU's stranglehold on the conference. If CMU manages to run the table and be the West's representative in the MACC, that's water under the bridge at this point. I think NIU can explain that game away and just say they dropped the ball on that one. Literally. CMU is a quality team, but generally not viewed as a team talented enough to knock off the conferences top dogs.
NIU wants to badly beat Toledo. The Huskies are mostly healthy and they should be at their best. And NIU is used to being the best. They don't want to lose that. The Rockets have been the most likely successor to NIU's crown. They are talented and have been pushing NIU hard over the Huskies recent run. I know Toledo is looking for an undefeated season and a possible access bowl birth. I also know Toledo also wants to stop a streak of five straight losses at the paws of the Huskies going back to 2010. This game is huge for Toledo's season.
But in this game, NIU is fighting to keep their program on top of the mountain.