Northern Illinois has quietly put itself in the hunt

Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson

While Central Michigan has dominated many of the headlines in the Mid-American Conference this season with their 8-2 campaign, Northern Illinois has quietly crept up the standings to give the Chippewas a challenge.

The Huskies have won three straight and are just one back of the Chippewas with three games to play, including tonight’s contest against Ball State. If Northern Illinois and Central Michigan continue to win, it sets up a pivotal game between the two at the end of the regular season to decide the West Division champion.

“To be honest, I think we’re a little farther along than I thought we would be,” Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said. “We’re so, so young on defense and we’ve had some critical injuries. We’ve lost two defensive tackles, we’re playing two true freshman on the defensive line. I was a little nervous, but our kids have really stepped up and put us in a good position. Now they’ve got to close out. There’s three games left and they’ve got to play very well.”

Central Michigan made a big statement Wednesday night with a 56-28 win over Toledo. Tonight, the Huskies take on a Ball State team that has just one win on the season, but has won the last two against the Huskies.

Kill said he’s been most impressed with his team’s ability to rally despite some tough situations. The three games the Huskies have lost have been by eight or fewer points. They’re lone league loss was a 20-19 decision against Toledo and the Huskies had a blocked field goal in the final seconds.

Not to mention the Huskies have been riddled with injuries, including a knee injury that has sidelined starting quarterback Chandler Harnish since that Toledo game. Backup DeMarcus Grady has filled in the past three games and led the Huskies to three consecutive victories. Both quarterbacks are expected to be available tonight.

“The hard thing for us is that we lost a two-point game to Idaho and we had a chance to win it on field goal at Toledo and then Wisconsin. We’ve been in every game,” Kill said. “Once we lost to Toledo, and certainly losing your starting quarterback, it would have been easy to just tank. But they’ve been able to fight through it, have some guys step up and that’s what it’s all about.”

Northern Illinois also has been helped by a running game that is one of the best in the country. Led by junior Chad Spann, who has 767 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns this season, the Huskies’ running game has allowed Grady to settle in at quarterback and now he’s contributing to the running option as well.

“Me, Me’co [Brown], Justin [Anderson], we’ve had to pick it up ourselves and just try to carry the team as far as we can,” Spann said. “But DeMarcus has bloomed very well, he’s gotten better every game and he’s taken pressure off of us and he’s putting a little bit on himself as well. So, he’s filled in very nicely.”

In Kill’s two seasons with Northern Illinois, he’s won at least six games. Last season, the Huskies went to a bowl and figure to be in the mix for another postseason appearance this year. But a divisional championship is something that would exceed expectations. The Huskies haven’t won the MAC West since 2005 and haven’t won the MAC title while the conference has played a championship game.

“All of our goals are still there,” Spann said. “We just want to focus on one game at a time, get that one game out of the way and we’ll be where we want to be. That’s the kind of mentality we’ve taken and that’s how we’re going to keep going.”