Passion pays off for NIU


DeKALB, Ill. - Students at Northern Illinois University were encouraged to bring signs to Tuesday night's game at Huskie Stadium. A winner would be selected by former NIU star running back Garrett Wolfe. It was never announced which one Wolfe picked, but the fans made their choice obvious.

It was a fairly small, red sign with thick black lettering that said, "I Hate Toledo."

When it flashed on the scoreboard video screen during a time out, the crowd of 18,472 roared its approval and agreement.

There is no question which school Northern considers its No. 1 football rival in the Mid-American Conference. And when the teams collided Tuesday night with identical 5-0 league records, there also was no question which was better.

The Huskies steamrolled UT's Rockets in the first half - NIU had 19 first downs and 295 yards to lead 28-0 - and after a video-game-like second half the final score was 65-30.

NIU ran its winning streak to seven games and has a big leg up for the MAC West Division title and a berth in the league's championship game. It is true UT finishes with two games at home while the Huskies hit the road for their last two, but this win and contests against league bottom-feeders Ball State and Eastern Michigan all but assure NIU of a title bid.

For the Huskies, it's about time. UT had won 14 of the previous 16 games in the series dating to 1990. NIU entered Tuesday night just 5-19 against Toledo as a member of the MAC. That explains the "I Hate Toledo," and it may explain why UT had trouble matching the home team's passion. Under no circumstances is Northern the Rockets' primary rival. That would be Bowling Green. And, frankly, it might be hard to work up a big froth over an opponent you have owned. Certainly, the Rockets did not seem inspired, despite what was on the line.

The locals still talk about the game here in 2004 when the Huskies entered with six straight MAC wins for a Tuesday night national TV game against a UT team that was 5-1 in the league. There were so many people jammed in this old yard that night that scalpers were actually working the parking lots and making money. The Rockets made hay, too, with a 31-17 romp.

Six years later on another Tuesday night with national TV cameras again focused in, the Huskies got even.

Man, did they ever.

In its third season under coach Jerry Kill, Northern is now 20-0, as in 20 wins and zero losses, when its running game produces 200 yards. The Huskies had 175 rushing yards by halftime, bumped it to 324 yards after three quarters, and finished with 422. Toledo's defense was out of its element and the Rockets never had a chance.

UT already is bowl eligible with six wins and that is indeed progress after four consecutive losing seasons.

But it probably was too optimistic to add up three straight wins over the likes of Kent State, Ball State, and Eastern Michigan and somehow come to the conclusion that the Rockets were ready for prime time.

UT's players wear wristbands that say "Operation Ford Field," referring to the site of the MAC title game, and coach Tim Beckman has often stated his team's goal was to make the "54-mile-march" from campus to downtown Detroit. But this outcome was more than a speed bump. The Rockets had a blowout and ended up in a ditch by the side of the road.

"To give up 65 points in a game like this, there's no way you can be successful," Beckman said late Tuesday night. "We have to play better defense to compete at a championship level."

Toledo's offense, operating behind backup quarterback Terrence Owens, made a little noise during an entertaining third quarter that saw the teams combine for 51 points.

Obviously, the UT defense never made itself heard as the Huskies finished with 584 yards of total offense.

Northern Illinois' team and its fans might hate Toledo, as the sign indicated, but there's no way they could have hated what they saw from the Rockets - pretenders, not contenders - Tuesday night.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg or 419-724-6398.