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Doeren: Huskies are ‘absolutely’ a top 25 team

NIU running back JasmHopkins (25) tries get around Arkansas State Demario Davis (23) first half Bowl Sunday.  Butch

NIU running back Jasmin Hopkins (25) tries to get around Arkansas State Demario Davis (23) in the first half of the Bowl on Sunday. Butch Dill~AP

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Updated: March 24, 2012 11:43PM

MOBILE, Ala. — Does the Northern Illinois football team deserve a top 25 ranking in the final collegiate polls?

First-year coach Dave Doeren believes so.

“Absolutely,” he said Sunday after his Huskies topped Arkansas State 38-20 in the Bowl. “You win nine in a row. You beat a team that’s won nine in a row, as well as a conference championship, I think so.

“We were 26th in one poll (USA Today coaches) coming in and after that game, I don’t know how we’re not top 25. You win 11 games in back-to-back seasons, I don’t know how they don’t give us that.”

The Huskies came into the Bowl with seven points in the AP Top 25 (writers) poll, which placed them 30th. After last year’s win over Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl, Northern finished 29th in the writers’ poll and 26th in the coaches’ rankings.

Unsung hero

You could hang that label on backup quarterback Jordan Lynch, who stepped in for injured starter Chandler Harnish and completed 4 of 4 passes while directing a 78-yard scoring drive in the second quarter that gave NIU the lead for good at 14-13.

“I love to see him complete passes because so many people think he can’t throw and we know he can,” said Harnish. “I love to see him go out and succeed and, aside from our defense, I think he was one of the most valuable players in the game.

“To come in and keep it rolling like that was a huge momentum changer. Then we were able to run off (31) straight points.”

Not surprising

Doeren wasn’t surprised his backup, used in spot duty the last two years primarily as a running QB, was able to step up.

“Honestly, I expected it,” said the coach. “Jordan, in developmental practices (before the bowl game), we saw him really come on and saw him continue to throw the ball better.

“I told him when we left the locker room (after the game), ‘This is your team now.’ He said, ‘I know.’ I’m really excited about him for next year.”

Looking ahead

Another reason Doeren was smiling was the state of his defense for next season. The unit made great improvement during the course of the season and helped win key games down the stretch in spite of personnel setbacks that kept mounting.

His defense played without two of its top defensive linemen in the bowl game after team defensive MVP Ron Newcomb needed surgery for a torn Achilles tendon suffered in the MAC Championship victory and Sean Progar was suspended for the game for a DUI charge he’s facing.

“I was worried about our ability to tackle in space in the game,” said Doeren. “I thought that was the key to us playing like we did on defense (holding the Red Wolves scoreless in the middle quarters).”

Another key was the pressure applied by the line, especially Alan Baxter (1.5 sacks, 7 tackles) and senior Kyle Jenkins (1.5 tackles-for-loss, 2 pass breakups) who started for Progar.

“Jenkins has played eight different positions since he’s been here,” said Doeren. “He’s the ultimate team player. And for him to get a final start, next man up mentality, it’s kind of what we’re all about.

“As for Baxter, I think it’s been coming. Alan got hurt in the Kansas game and he was unblockable in that game. He kinda disappeared, production-wise, and then at the end of the year as he got healthier, I was expecting something like that to happen.”

Looking good

The future is bright for Northern’s defense, which could regain linebackers Tyrone Clark and Devon Butler, who started last year. Butler sat out the season but was able to practice. Butler was injured in an off-campus shooting, in which he was not the target.

“It’s gonna be awesome, there’s no doubt,” said Doeren. “These guys are mentally tough and we’re gaining some guys we redshirted and a couple guys are anxious to play again. We’re gonna have a great offseason and our defense is gonna be tough to deal with next year.”

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