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No-names stepping up for Huskies

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Central Michigan (2-5) at Northern Illinois (5-2), 3 p.m. Saturday, Comcast SportsNet Chicago, WSCR 670-AM

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



DEKALB — They may not have headliners, but they’re not bad.

Playing without their best player since the second half of a loss at Illinois (Sept. 18th), Northern Illinois University’s no-name defense has emerged as a pretty stout group.

The Huskies head into Saturday’s noon home game against Central Michigan ranked first in scoring defense (20 points per game) and fourth in total defense (339.3 yards per game) in the Mid-American Conference. This, even though they don’t have one player ranked in the top 20 in tackles and nobody in the league’s top 10 for quarterback sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions or fumbles forced.

“We play an 11-man defense where everybody has a specific responsibility,” explained sophomore middle linebacker Devon Butler.

And everyone has been stepping up, especially in the secondary after senior safety Tracy Wilson (St. Francis DeSales) went down with a pulled groin muscle. He led Northern with 93 tackles last season and was on pace to top 120.

Wilson has missed four games but with 26 stops, is still tied for fifth on the team with cornerback Chris Smith. The starting linebackers — SLB Alex Kube (44), WLB Tyrone Clark (43) and MLB Butler (42) — lead the way with free safety Tommy Davis fourth at 39.

Wilson could return next week but may not be back until Nov. 9 when NIU hosts Toledo.

“That’s a tough deal,” said secondary coach Jay Sawvel. “There was a stretch in the second half of the Iowa State game where (Wilson) dominated the game. He made every play for two straight series. You do miss that.

“We’ve filled in and have had guys who found a way to be effective.”

Fortunately, when Wilson went down, senior Mike Sobol was coming back from offseason knee surgery and has “played some of his better football since he’s been here,” said Sawvel, who has also gotten contributions from safety backups Garrett Barnas and freshman Jimmie Ward.

NIU (5-2 overall and 3-1 MAC West) has allowed just 17 points per game on its current four-game winning streak, the Huskies’ longest since 2004.

“We’ve come along a little better than I thought, defensively,” coach Jerry Kill said. “With Tracy Wilson’s injury, I was concerned. It’s amazing what coach Sawvel and those kids have done back there. They’ve gotten better and better.”

Individual defensive stats are down because Kill and his position coaches make it a point to rotate plenty of players in and out of the lineup to develop more depth.

“It goes back to two-a-days in preseason camp,” Kill said. “We go two huddles and rep everybody. You can’t put (new players) to the side and just focus on the experienced players. You get an injury and you’ll have to teach ‘em then. The way we practice has helped us when we’ve had injuries.”

Senior defensive end Jake Coffman, named one of 10 finalists this week for Lowe’s Senior CLASS (Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School) Award, leads the Huskies with five tackles for loss and two quarterback sacks, but 17 NIU defenders have at least 10 tackles.

“We don’t have a lot of guys worried about getting their own,” Sawvel said. “We’re worried about being the best defense we can be and winning as many games as we can.”



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