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College Football: Northern Illinois knows MAC repeat won’t come easy

Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch. | Supplied photo

Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch. | Supplied photo

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NIU schedule

Sept. 1 vs. Iowa+ 2:30 p.m.

Sept. 8 Tenn.-Martin 6 p.m.

Sept. 15 at Army 11 a.m.

Sept. 22 Kansas TBA

Sept. 29 C. Michigan* 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 6 at Ball State* 2 p.m.

Oct. 13 Buffalo* 2:30 p.m.

Oct. 20 at Akron* 11 a.m.

Oct. 27 at W. Michigan* 11 a.m.

Nov. 3 UMass* 2:30 p.m.

Nov. 14 Toledo* 8 p.m.

Nov. 23 at E. Michigan* TBA

Nov. 30 MAC title# 6 p.m.

*Mid-American Conference game
+at Soldier Field; #at Detroit

Updated: September 15, 2012 6:20AM

Defending champs.

It’s been awhile since Northern Illinois football players could say that. The Huskies went 28 years between the school’s two Mid-American Conference titles, finally breaking through last season behind senior quarterback Chandler Harnish, who set 30 school records.

Second-year coach Dave Doeren lost Harnish and eight other starters to graduation from the most prolific offense — 536 points, 38.3 per-game — in Northern history.

Even so, it doesn’t seem likely the wait for No. 3 should be as long. This is, after all, the Golden Age of NIU football since the program went D-I in 1969.

“I’m not the first guy who’s done it,” Doeren said. “If you look at the last 12 years in the MAC, NIU overall has the winningest team in the league. It’s a product that’s been (here) for awhile.”

Long gone are the memories of nine straight losing seasons (1991-99) that included a 23-game losing streak. But even with an established defense — 10 returning starters — and emerging talent on offense, Doeren says this season’s conference title race is “up for grabs.”

MAC repeats don’t come easy.

“We have to reprove ourselves,” Doeren said. “Saying that you’re the defending MAC champs is an honor and we’re excited to be in that position. But we know that with it, comes the best shot we can get from every team we play. … In the last 22 years, nine different teams have won the MAC.”

Redshirt senior Logan Pegram anchors the offensive line, which is one of the biggest Huskie question marks since four starters are gone. Pegram has moved from guard, where he had 22 starts, to center.

“It’s just my philosophy that our most experienced player would be the one who snaps the ball and makes the line calls for our offense. Logan was our backup center a year ago,” Doeren said.

Only Pegram and middle linebacker Victor Jacques remain from former coach Jerry Kill’s first recruiting class of 13 scholarship signees. Four other redshirt senior starters — DE Sean Progar, CB Rashaan Melvin, TE Jason Schepler and P Ryan Neir — though, remain from a group that started as preferred walk-ons and earned scholarships.

“What’s left are some quality guys,” Pegram said. “Coach Kill took a chance on a lot of us and it kind of paid off.”

The group came in off Northern’s last losing season (2-10), when 17 players went down with season-ending injuries, and have been part of teams that have gone to four straight bowl games.

“It’s truly an honor to have something like that, that you can cherish for a lifetime,” Melvin said, rattling off the bowls, “Independence, International, Humanitarian and, along with the MAC Championship. Now we go for five.”

A young defense that took heat last season after allowing 33-plus points per game through 11 contests before cutting that number to 17 over the final three should be a strength. The line includes vets like Progar, Alan Baxter, Nabal Jefferson and Anthony Wells. Jacque, Jamaal Bass and Tyrone Clark head a linebacker group that can ill afford many injuries. Melvin and talented safety duo Jimmie Ward and Dechane Durante head what should be a strong secondary.

Junior Jordan Lynch, who has shined in spot duty over the past two seasons, gets the nod as Harnish’s successor.

“I think people are gonna be surprised by what we can bring,” Pegram said. “Jordan brings another dimension to our offense.”

He has a talented group of receivers led by seniors Martel Moore and Perez Ashford and a tight end group that is stronger than last year, according to Doeren.

“The one thing I will say is that we have a quarterback that will equal the playing field at times because of his running ability,” Doeren said. “We may not have to block things perfectly every time.”

The coach calls speedster Akeem Daniels “our most dependable guy in the backfield right now,” and first team All-MAC kicker Mathew Sims headlines a veteran group of special teams players that should be a strength.

A top five ranking nationally in Academic Progress Rate the past two years is another point of pride for the program, which puts the Huskies in the company of Northeastern, Boise State, Duke and Ohio State nationally.

Add to that the nation’s longest (FBS) winning streak at nine and a home win streak of 15 and little wonder Doeren says he’s “feeling good about the state of our team.”

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