Offensive line has become a strength for NIU heading into MAC championship
BY NEIL HAYES firstname.lastname@example.org November 29, 2012 7:56PM
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch (6) runs through the defense of Eastern Michigan linebacker Sean Kurtz (40) and defensive lineman Andy Mulumba (56) during the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in Ypsilanti, Mich., Friday, Nov. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)
Updated: January 1, 2013 6:35AM
DeKALB — Ask Dave Doeren which unit he most feared would scuttle his team’s goal of winning back-to-back Mid-American Conference championships and the Northern Illinois coach doesn’t hesitate to identify his offensive line.
Ask him which position group has most exceeded his expectations and is his response is not only the same but just as immediate.
The story behind the story of MAC MVP Jordan Lynch’s Heisman Trophy candidacy is an offensive line that appeared to be the weak link heading into the season. Doeren knew he had a championship-caliber defense. He knew he had the quarterback in Lynch and the skill position players to maintain his prolific offense.
He also had five new starting linemen after his only returning starter suffered a season-ending injury in training camp.
“There are some things you can’t put into a practice that happen in a game,” Doeren said. “When you have five of those guys out there doing it together, and you have five guys without game experience, and you’re talking about guys the whole offense revolves around, well, I was pretty nervous about it.”
The Huskies’ biggest question mark heading into the season remains the key to the program’s hopes of landing a possible Orange Bowl berth. The offensive line will face its stiffest challenge when No. 19 NIU meets No. 18 Kent State on Friday night in the MAC Championship game at Ford Field in Detroit.
The Golden Flashes also are 11-1 overall and 8-0 in conference play, thanks largely to a defense that has produced a whopping 30 turnovers.
“They move a lot and they’re fast,” guard Aidan Conlon said. “They’re almost undersized up front. They just use their speed well. They’re quick off the line and can make plays if you don’t get your hands on them.”
Six or seven times a game, Kent State’s defense will run a stunt or blitz they’ve never used before, which can confuse and overwhelm an inexperienced offensive line.
That was offensive line coach Rod Carey’s biggest concern about his unit before the season but his line has played well together while helping NIU’s offense rank 11th in the nation in rushing and lead the MAC in fewest sacks allowed with 10.
“Sometimes there’s a look you’re not prepared for because the defense comes up with a new twist, a new blitz, a new something,” Carey said. “You don’t show them it because it’s not on film and they run it in a game and our guys have for the most part really handled that stuff well. That’s how they have exceeded my expectations.”
Lynch became the second player in history to pass for more than 2,500 yards and run for more than 1,500 behind a line anchored by two redshirt freshman and three redshirt sophomores. The Huskies’ best lineman, left tackle Tyler Loos, suffered a season-ending injury against Toledo, forcing swing tackle Ryan Brown into the starting lineup.
“We didn’t have any experience at all as a group,” right tackle Matt Krempel said. “Instead of really feeling the pressure and getting down we focused on learning the offense better than the group before us knew it. That was our goal, to understand the game better. We wanted to rely on fundamentals instead of experience.”
The attention to detail has paid off. Kent State coach Darrell Hazell said he would not have known the Huskies’ line had played together for one season by watching them on film.
“Northern Illinois has always had a good offensive line,” Conlon said. “We didn’t want to be the one that wasn’t good.”