Northern to open against Iowa.before a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field.
The smallest man on the field for Northern Illinois last season has left the biggest hole to fill.
Garrett Wolfe has graduated. With him went 5,164 career rushing yards and a breakaway threat that no other back in Huskies history, not even Michael Turner or LeShon Johnson, possessed.
That presents Joe Novak, the head coach who believes in the running game as only someone who played under Bo Schembechler can, with a quandary.
Hand the ball to junior Montell Clanton as often as he ordered the ball given to Wolfe, or throw more often, using the arm of Brother Rice High School product Dan Nicholson?
Novak comes back with a question of his own.
“Do we have another Wolfe or Turner?” he wonders out loud. “We didn’t know we had a Garrett Wolfe until he started playing. In our offense, you’d better have some yardage.”
“They probably think there’s going to be a drop-off,” Clanton, recovered from a knee injury, said of outsiders. “I’m not surprised.”
Clanton carried the ball just a dozen times last season, but gained 102 yards. An 8.5 yards-per-carry average extended over a full season would eliminate Novak’s quandary.
Well, one of them at least. The Huskies, 7-6 last season, have had seven straight winning campaigns, a school record in the major college era, but Novak has plenty of questions to answer.
“Every three or four years, I say we have a mystery team,” said Novak, who begins his 12th year at the helm. “Are we a year away? I hear that sometimes. But I really like this football team.”
Beyond replacing Wolfe and quarterback Phil Horvath, the Huskies’ biggest hole is on the offensive line. Only one senior returns. Whether it’s running or passing, the Huskies need the brute precision of the past few years up front.
As has been the case in recent years, Novak isn’t allowed to ease his team into the season. Mid-American Conference play is tough enough, but the Huskies, who started the last two seasons at Michigan and Ohio State, respectively, open the season Saturday with Iowa at Soldier Field.
Sold-out Soldier Field. The Hawkeyes always travel well, and Northern Illinois has more alumni in the Chicago area than any other university, so the game figured to be a big draw. But even NIU administrators were surprised the game sold out almost two months in advance. About 35,000 seats were bought by Iowa fans, some 25,000 by Huskies fans.
Regardless of the dominant color scheme, that the Huskies are playing downtown for the first time - and hosting a Big Ten school rather than meeting one on the road - is one more step in the building of the DeKalb school’s athletic image.
Whether that image takes a beating on the scoreboard hinges first on how well Clanton and Nicholson do. Nicholson, who understudied Horvath the last two years (Nicholson also made five starts), assured himself of the starting job in spring practice. He has a cadre of rather experienced receivers to throw to, even given the touches Wolfe enjoyed last season.
If Nicholson finds the Davis brothers - senior Brandon is the tight end, junior Britt the wide receiver - often enough for enough yards, Clanton may not have to pound the ball incessantly. The Huskies have been quite predictable the last two years, even if Wolfe’s dodge-and-dart running style made each particular play unpredictable.
“This is as good a core of wide receivers as we’ve had,” Novak said. “We can spread the ball around.”
That indicates faith in Nicholson, who started the final three games of 2005 and the final two of ’06, including in the Poinsettia Bowl, when Horvath was injured.
It hinges second on the defense, which Novak believes is the team’s strength in a changing football world.
“We see more spread offenses than ever, so we recruited safeties,” Novak said. “Our two outside linebackers are close to being the two safeties.”
Seven defensive starters return, including senior defensive back Mark Reiter, whose 77 tackles lead returning secondary players. And while three of last year’s four starters graduated, three who will start this year had at least seven starts last year.
“This is the deepest secondary we’ve had,” Novak said. “I feel good about the quality of athletes we have out there.”
The linebackers are led by Tim McCarthy in the middle, with Larry English anchoring defensive end. English, whose dozen sacks as a sophomore tied the single-season Huskie record, can only improve.
If all else fails, the Huskies can rely on placekicker Chris Nendick, who has made 45 field goals the last three years and can boom the ball on kickoffs, important with the shift of kickoffs from the 35-yard line to the 30.
A mystery team? Novak may end up pleased with how the story turns out.
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