It was a beautiful fall evening on Saturday at Huskie Stadium as our Huskies took on the Leathernecks of Western Illinois University. Major kudos to Jeff Compher and his staff for continuously tweaking the gameday experience to achieve its current state, which is terrific in my opinion. I actually got goosebumps when the Huskies made their entrance to the field right before gametime. The whole evening’s production had to be impressive to any recruits who were in the house.
Everyone knows of our sorry history against FCS (1AA) competition in general and WIU in particular but there was no repeat of the 2007 SIU debacle on this night.
Give WIU a lot of credit, they came out tough and really took it to us during the first few series. They moved the ball with ease and their crafty lefthanded QB bore a disturbing resemblance to a certain SIU signal caller of recent memory. Only a few untimely pass drops stopped them, not the Huskie D. The coaches need to make some serious adjustments or more accomplished spread offense teams like Toledo and Central Michigan will have a field day. The Huskies were very fortunate to have this game early in the season so they can still make those adjustments.
NIU’s offense was revved up and took full advantage of WIU’s miscues, scoring almost at will in the first half. It looks to me like every part of the offense is playing pretty well right now. Chandler Harnish continues to take care of the ball and make good decisions and he hasn’t had to run much, as the coaches hoped coming into the season. He’s still a dangerous option running the ball but it’s nice to keep him fresh and out of harm’s way as much as possible. Meco Brown, Chad Spann and, dare I say it, Justin Anderson, all had good games toting the rock and Kyle Skarb threw some great blocks from the fullback position. Oh, and there was a Ricky Crider sighting so apparently his hammy is better. It would be great to mix him in there so some of those long runs could end up in the end zone.
The offensive line continues to gel and has a chance to be pretty good. Up at Wisconsin they pushed the Badger D-Line completely into the end zone on both of Spann’s TDs, something we haven’t seen in awhile but used to see regularly. The tight ends have been solid and it’s nice to see them working Jack Marks into the mix as he adds another dimension with his ability to get downfield. It would be nice to see some balls directed his way. The wideouts have more playmakers than usual, including not only Nate Palmer and Willie Clark but also true freshmen Martel Moore and Perez Ashford. These guys don’t have any problem playing at the D1 level and both posses serious upside. This group will be dangerous later this season and into upcoming seasons as well.
The defense continues to be a work in progress, and I think that is evidenced by the arrival of ever more true freshmen and other newcomers on the field. Alan Baxter and Jordan Delegal saw playing time at Wisconsin. This week Nabal Jefferson, Devon Butler, Tyrone Clark and Garrett Barnas joined them on the field. Granted, the whole second half was garbage time but most of these guys are showing up on the two deep for Purdue so we should see more of them. Areas where they had issues vs. WIU? Um, defensive tackle, linebacker and corner, basically everything but defensive end and safety.
Let’s break it down. The first unit tackles, DJ Pirkle and Brian Lawson, played very well but there’s a definite dropoff after them. I believe that’s the reason for the Nabal Jefferson sighting and why some of the ends lined up inside on certain downs. It seems like the coaches are still looking for their rotation there. I thought the ends played very well. They didn’t get many sacks until later in the game but give credit to WIU QB Matt Barr for outstanding elusiveness and pocket presence. If you watch the highlights you’ll see they put on a ferocious pass rush and a little more help from the tackle position would have come in handy.
Linebacker? It seems like those guys haven’t made many plays against the running game this season and too much stuff is filtering back to the DBs. Maybe that’s by design but it would be nice to see those guys get stouter against the run. I think we might see some more experimentation with the lineup at linebacker.
The safeties have been real solid and that’s without a healthy David Bryant so no worries at all there. It was a smart move to hold him out of the WIU game to get healthy and Garrett Barnas got some playing time to boot. The corners seem to be playing a mile off their guys although they got better as the WIU game went on. We have pretty good athletes out there, they just need to bear down on coverage. Easier said than done of course but hey, that’s their job.
Overall this defense has a chance to be very good but they need to improve each week in order to compete effectively in MAC play.
How about the return game? There’s some excitement there for the first time in years with Tommy (I Refuse To Fair Catch) Davis on punts and some combination of Davis, David Bryant and John Tranchitella on kickoffs. I attended a practice a few weeks back and the defensive guys looked kind of scary bringing the ball out on kickoffs. It will be fun to watch this group and maybe they’ll be able to mix Ricky Crider in there as well as he returns from his injury.
A few quick comments about WIU. Excellent quarterback, tough running back, unbelievably good punter (that guy absolutely launched a few perfect spirals), and cool uniforms reminiscent of the U. of Washington. That team should definitely compete in the very tough Missouri Valley Football Conference.