NCF Nation: Chad Spann

NIU backs competing to start

April, 22, 2011
The position is there for the taking, one that has traditionally been an area of strength for Northern Illinois.

With Chad Spann gone, the competition to replace him at running back has been intense. But as the Huskies prepare for their spring game Saturday, there is no clear-cut front-runner for the job.

Jasmin Hopkins, Jamal Womble and Akeem Daniels are all in the mix to become the starter. Coach Dave Doeren said there will be plenty more competition to be had at that spot come the fall. For now, the three are working on consistency, a key word Hopkins and Womble reiterated in separate telephone interviews this week.

“There couldn’t be a better situation for me,” said Womble, who enrolled at Northern Illinois in January out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. “With Chad leaving, there are huge shoes to fill, and there will be a lot of pressure. But as a competitor, you want that pressure.”

Hopkins and Daniels were on the team last season and watched Spann dominate, rushing for 1,388 yards and a school single-season record 22 touchdowns en route to MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors and the MAC Vern Smith Leadership Award.

But then Womble entered the picture. A former four-star running back out of high school in Arizona, he initially signed with North Carolina. He broke his wrist his redshirt freshman season there and then ran into academic troubles, so he transferred to Hutchinson.

Then-coach Jerry Kill offered him a scholarship, and Womble was set to accept. But then Kill abruptly resigned to become head coach at Minnesota and Northern Illinois was out. What changed his mind? Tom Matukewicz was recruiting him, and he stayed on staff. Then he started thinking about what Doeren brings to the Huskies.

Doeren served as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, a traditional power run team that used three running backs last season in John Clay, Montee Ball and James White. Those three combined for 3,060 yards and 46 touchdowns in 2010. Clay and White each had more than 1,000 yards, while Ball finished 4 yards shy of reaching 1,000.

“Coach Doeren said nothing was going to change,” Womble said. “He said he would still run the ball and be a hard-nosed team.”

When Womble arrived, he was embraced by the other running backs even though he was their main competition. “There’s been no hostility, and that’s something I’ve appreciated since Day 1,” Womble said. “I didn’t know how people would react to me because there was hype. I came from a bigger school and maybe guys thought I would be coming in there taking their job. But it hasn’t been like that.”

Womble is a different type of running back than Hopkins and Daniels, bringing more power. Hopkins and Daniels are much quicker. But they have the advantage of playing experience at Northern Illinois. Hopkins is the top returning running back on the roster, with 366 yards and two touchdowns.

For Hopkins, the transition to yet another coaching staff has been tough. He also played at junior college in Kansas before arriving at Northern Illinois last year. But he learned enough from Spann to help him headed into this spring even though there are new coaches and new terminology.

“Being patient is one of the main things because when I first got here, I was seeing one thing and running sideline to sideline,” Hopkins said. “But in D-I, linemen and linebackers are just as fast as you so you can’t do that. He also taught me better technique that I had never learned before. I put it all together and it made me into a better player. I’m having a way better spring than I had last year.”

Chandler Harnish returns as quarterback, giving the Huskies yet another threat to run the football. With so many options, it appears the Huskies are in good shape headed into the fall, even without Spann leading the way.

“The competition has made us better,” Hopkins said. “We all know the starting job is open. Whoever is most consistent is going to play.”

Non-AQ Top 25 Players: No. 18

February, 24, 2011
The expectations for this player were high going into the season, and he more than lived up to them. Not only did he help lead his team to a national ranking for the first time since 2003, he won the most prestigious award in his conference.

No. 18 Chad Spann, RB, Northern Illinois

[+] EnlargeNorthern Illinois' Chad Spann
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidChad Spann set the Northern Illinois record with 22 rushing touchdowns this season.
For a school that has a good running back tradition, there is no question Chad Spann has taken his place as one of the best. Spann won the Vern Smith Leadership Award, presented to the top football player in the MAC. It says even more about him that the league head coaches vote for this award. He also won MAC Offensive Player of the Year after racking up 1,388 yards and leading the league in rushing. He also scored 22 touchdowns, setting the single-season school record. In all, Spann had six 100-yard games, including a doozy of a performance in a big win over Minnesota. Spann had 223 yards on just 15 carries, averaging 14.9 yards every time he touched the ball. He scored two touchdowns including a 61-yarder. That just set the stage for the season to come, when Northern Illinois finished the regular season 8-0 in MAC play. He and Chandler Harnish proved to be a duo that was difficult to stop, and the Huskies are going to need to find a way to replace him in 2011.

No. 19 Reggie Rembert, CB, Air Force

No. 20 T.Y. Hilton, WR/KR, FIU

No. 21 Eric Page, WR/KR, Toledo

No. 22 Jake Kirkpatrick, C, TCU

No. 23 Muhammad Wilkerson, DT, Temple

No. 24 Bobby Rainey, RB, Western Kentucky

No. 25 Roosevelt Nix, DT, Kent State
This spring, Minnesota players will be in the all too familiar position of learning a new offense.

Gophers seniors will adjust to their fourth offensive coordinator in as many seasons. They've already run the spread, the pro-style and pretty much everything in between, but spring ball will bring new plays, new formations and new expectations.

Here's the good news: Minnesota's newest offense is a keeper.

"This isn't going to change from year to year, and the kids are excited about that," Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover told me Wednesday. "We will talk to them constantly about laying a foundation. What we do the first day of spring are things that hopefully we're running on New Year's Day in a bowl game.

"We don't just say, 'Whichever way the wind blows, let's run that.' We do have that system that we've worked on and had some success with, and the kids have picked up on that."

Limegrover acknowledges he and the other coaches must sell their system to the players they're inheriting, but it shouldn't be too difficult. They could simply pop in a tape from Northern Illinois' 2010 season.

The Gophers' running backs will see Chad Spann, the Mid-American Conference MVP, scooting across the field for big gains en route to 1,388 rush yards and 22 touchdowns. The receivers will see multiple players involved in a pass attack that stretched the field at times. MarQueis Gray and the other quarterbacks will watch Northern Illinois star Chandler Harnish abuse defenses with both his arm and his feet. Minnesota's offensive linemen will see a unit that powered its way to 260.4 rush yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry.

Limegrover is quick to point out that Northern Illinois' 2010 offense featured veteran players who had spent years mastering the system. But Minnesota players can start the learning process without worrying about more changes.

"We're not going to come with something new every year," Limegrover said. "You learn it. Now we're going to build on it. That's something I've been telling the guys till I'm blue in the face."

Limegrover said a lot of people try to characterize the offense as a spread or a pro-I, but the system is multifaceted and has a lot going on before the snap. Minnesota will show a defense several formations and personnel groupings before the snap, and the offense puts pressure on the quarterback to make the correct checks.

But once the play starts, the Gophers will keep it simple.

"I can't stress enough that the best thing you can do is have your kids feel good about what they're going to do on a post-snap basis," Limegrover said. "Then they're going to be aggressive, they're going to execute. If they're not sure because the picture's changing on them a lot, then that's when you've got trouble.

"We'll do everything we can to try to gain leverage advantages, numbers advantages and personnel advantages pre-snap, but once that ball is snapped, we're pretty basic."

Lunchtime Links

December, 23, 2010
Will Navy and San Diego State need to bring in canoes for the S.D. County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl tonight? We will have to tune in and find out.

On to some links:

With its win over Utah in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas, Boise State fans are left to wonder what could have been.

The time is right for the Utes to move on.

Boise State's defense got the job done.

Terrance Cain is saddled with Utah's loss.

Touchdown Trae Johnson reaches the finish line for Tulsa.

The draft prospects of Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann are unknown.

Temple may have made a mistake with the hiring of Steve Addazio.

Jared Tew, Kevin Fogler and Brian Lindsay say they are healthy for Air Force leading into the Independence Bowl against Georgia Tech.

Humanitarian Bowl Keys

December, 17, 2010
Here are three keys for Fresno State and Northern Illinois in the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl on Saturday in Boise, Idaho.

Fresno State (8-4)

1. Get the ground game going. Robbie Rouse has been hobbled for much of the season with various injuries. First it was an ankle. Now it’s a broken left hand and a rib injury. He will wear a cast on his hand and he has declared himself perfectly fit for the game after missing the regular-season finale against Illinois. When he’s healthy, he’s proved to be a dynamic back. When he’s not, he and the Bulldogs have struggled. If he is hobbled, watch for A.J. Ellis.

2. Make life easy for Ryan Colburn. That means getting the running game going, and protecting him. Colburn is coming off his best game of the season against Illinois, in which he threw for 300 yards, and is painfully aware that the last senior quarterback to win a bowl game at Fresno State was Jeff Tedford in 1982.

3. Play up. Fresno State has some big wins over teams from AQ conferences under coach Pat Hill. But it also has some uncharacteristic losses to non-AQs. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Fresno State is 0-6 against teams from non-AQ conferences but 5-2 against teams from AQ conferences in bowl games since 1990.

Northern Illinois (10-3)

1. Get the ground game going. Chad Spann is going to have to be productive for Northern Illinois to have a chance to win. In the MAC championship game against Miami (Ohio), he only had 54 yards rushing. But there is a reason Northern Illinois has the No. 7 rushing team in the nation and Spann is a big reason. He averages nearly 100 yards a game and has the school record with 20 rushing TDs. His offensive line has done a great job all season but struggled against the RedHawks. Both are going to have to step up.

2. Contain Chris Carter and Logan Harrell. Fresno State has the best sack duo in the country in Carter and Harrell, who have combined for 21.5 sacks. What has worked so well for Fresno State has been the way the inside linemen have been able to hold their blocks to give Carter and Harrell time to make tackles behind the line. Northern Illinois may have to use an extra back to help block them, depending how disruptive they are early in the game.

3. Score. No brainer, right? Well the Huskies have had big-time problems scoring in bowl games of late. They have scored a combined 20 points in their last three, including a field goal in a loss to USF in the International Bowl last season.
Fresno State returns to Boise, Idaho, the scene of one of the most humiliating losses in school history, a 51-0 shellacking earlier in the season at the hands of Boise State. But hey, at least the Broncos will be in Las Vegas this time. The Bulldogs go to the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl to face Northern Illinois, a team that lost head coach Jerry Kill and both coordinators to Minnesota. Interim coach Tom Matukewicz leads the way for the Huskies, who are coming off a heartbreaking loss to Miami (Ohio) in the MAC championship game.

WHO TO WATCH: Northern Illinois running back Chad Spann. It is not oversimplifying to say how Northern Illinois goes depends on how Spann goes. Early in the season, the run game sputtered and Northern Illinois sputtered. Then in the MAC title game, Spann only had 54 yards rushing, and the favored Huskies ended up losing. Still, Spann was MAC Player of the Year for a reason. The Huskies still have one of the best rushing offenses in the nation, ranking No. 7, and Fresno State has had problems stopping the run at times. Quarterback Chandler Harnish has contributed there as well.

WHAT TO WATCH: How Northern Illinois responds. This has been a difficult three-week stretch for the Huskies. They went into the MAC title game with a Top 25 ranking and a nine-game winning streak, but they were uncharacteristically pushed around on the offensive line. They lost with 33 seconds left in the game. Then Kill left, and many players found out about his departure through text messages and social networking sites – before Kill had a chance to tell them in person. We will see how much that double whammy impacts their focus in this one.

WHY TO WATCH: One of the best pass-rushers in the nation makes this game one to watch. Fresno State defensive end Chris Carter had 11 sacks this season, tied for seventh in the country, and was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year. He is going to be a huge key in trying to pressure Harnish, who can get rattled easily in the pass game. Teammate Logan Harrell also had 10.5 sacks, making them the top pass-rushing duo in the nation.

PREDICTION: Fresno State 28, Northern Illinois 20. The Bulldogs are going to be helped by a healthier Robbie Rouse, who broke his hand against Boise State. I also think they will be able to control both lines of scrimmage.
The preseason expectations were there for the Huskies. They were favored from the outset to reach the MAC championship game. But adversity struck right away. Coach Jerry Kill decided to go with DeMarcus Grady at quarterback in the opener against Iowa State. He was not productive, so Kill benched him and went with Chandler Harnish. That proved to be a wise move, though there was another bit of adversity to overcome. Kill was hospitalized for nearly a week after a setback following gallbladder surgery, but returned in time to watch his team lose to Illinois. After that 1-2 start, Northern Illinois started its rally with a win over Minnesota and ended up winning nine straight en route to the MAC title game. The Huskies got their first ranking since 2003 and were heavy favorites to beat Miami (Ohio). But they fell short after the RedHawks threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 33 seconds remaining. Still, they are headed to their third straight bowl game, unprecedented for the program. Kill deserves all the credit, but he won’t be there to coach the team in the uDrove Humanitarian Bowl against Fresno State. He accepted a job at Minnesota, leaving Northern Illinois after three seasons. Still, he left the program in far better shape than he found it. Despite the disappointment over the way the season ended, the Huskies have a chance to win a program-record 11th game.

Offensive MVP: RB Chad Spann. The MAC Offensive Player of the Year broke the school’s record for single season rushing touchdowns with 20 and has gained 1,293 yards on 243 carries. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and Northern Illinois ranks No. 7 in the country in rushing offense.

Defensive MVP: LB Alex Kube. This is a tough one, because Sean Progar, Sean Smith and Jake Coffman had outstanding seasons. But Kube led the team in tackles, and Kill has had nothing but glowing remarks about him, saying he has made the most strides of anyone and developed into an “excellent leader.”

Turning point: Losing in the MAC title game has to be a turning point. The Huskies were so close, the way they were in 2005 before losing. How the team responds against the Bulldogs, without their head coach, is going to be important to watch.

What’s next: Northern Illinois plays Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl on Dec. 18 and must begin the search for a new head coach.

uDrove Humanitarian Bowl

December, 5, 2010
Northern Illinois Huskies (10-3) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (8-4)

Dec. 18, 5:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

The season ended in heartbreak for the Huskies, who were upset in the MAC title game 26-21 to Miami (Ohio). The Huskies had won nine straight going into the game, but their normally strong running game was totally shut down. Chad Spann, the reigning MAC player of the year, had 54 yards rushing and 3.2 yards a carry. Miami simply loaded the box, and Northern Illinois could not get any consistency going in the passing game with Chandler Harnish. Still, the Huskies do have a potent rushing attack, ranking No. 7 in the country. Coach Jerry Kill has done a terrific job taking this team to three straight bowl games. But he will not be on the sideline for this one, having accepted the head coaching job at Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Fresno State was able to overcome back-to-back losses to Nevada and Boise State to close the season with two straight wins. The Bulldogs have been hurt this season because of injuries to several key players. Running back Robbie Rouse, slated to replace Ryan Mathews, has been hobbled for most of the year, and missed the finale against Illinois. Still, he did have back-to-back 200-yard games and more than 1,000 yards this season. Quarterback Ryan Colburn has taken a big step forward, and so has the defensive line. After ranking as one of the worst teams in the nation in sacks last year, Fresno State ended up with 37, thanks to Chris Carter and Logan Harrell, who combined for 21.5. Three of the Bulldogs’ four losses this season have come to ranked teams.

Miami (Ohio), your 2010 MAC champs

December, 4, 2010
If there is a more incredible story among the non-AQs this season, please show it to me.

Miami (Ohio) pulled off a stunner Friday night in Detroit, upsetting the heavily favored Northern Illinois Huskies to win the MAC championship -- one season removed from a 1-11 record.

Where do we start handing out the credit? First of course is MAC Coach of the Year Mike Haywood, who has engineered the biggest turnaround in college football this season. Miami won nine games, and he has completely changed the culture in the program, laying down tough rules and expecting nothing but hard work and discipline. His team also won with games on the line -- Miami is 7-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer.

Many might question his decision to go for a fake field goal midway through the third quarter, with the RedHawks up 20-14. When you are the underdog, conventional wisdom calls for you to try to take as many points as you can get. Maybe Haywood was skittish because his special teams had been shaky -- with an extra point and field goal blocked already in the game.

But the fake field goal was less than inspired. Holder Mike Scherpenberg took the ball up the middle and came up short. After Northern Illinois scored late in the fourth quarter to go up 21-20, you thought those special-teams miscues would come back to cost the RedHawks.

[+] EnlargeChris Givens
Steven King/Icon SMIChris Givens came down with a 31-yard pass on fourth-and-20 to keep the game-winning drive alive.
But redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Boucher would not be denied. On fourth-and-20 with time ticking down, he completed a 31-yard pass to Chris Givens. Northern Illinois got its hands on the ball and tipped it, and Givens was right there for the catch. After a sack, Northern Illinois sent the house at Boucher. Making a terrific read, he spotted a wide open Armand Robinson running loose, and hit him for the 33-yard touchdown reception with 33 seconds left, and the improbable 26-21 win.

Where else does the credit go? The Miami defense, which did an incredible job slowing down the top-rated Northern Illinois rushing attack. The RedHawks loaded the box and limited MAC Offensive Player of the Year Chad Spann to 54 yards on the ground. Northern Illinois had just 92 total yards rushing. With the running game taken away, Chandler Harnish was not nearly as effective, and that ended up costing the Huskies.

Boucher deserves his share of credit, too. He was making his third career start, filling in for starter Zac Dysert, out with a lacerated spleen. But Boucher showed the calm and poise of a veteran, throwing for 333 yards and not wilting under the intense pressure late in the game. How often do we see freshmen making the plays he made to win the game?

"I've imagined it so many times -- winning the game in the last minute," Boucher said.

For Northern Illinois, it was another heartbreaker in the MAC title game. In its last appearance in this contest in 2005, Akron beat the Huskies 31-30 with a 36-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds remaining.

In a strange twist, Northern Illinois had one shot to win with the ball at the RedHawks' 32-yard line with 10 seconds left. But Harnish, scrambling to find an open receiver, never felt the pass rush coming at him and was sacked to end the game.

The Huskies had won nine straight, and garnered their first Top 25 ranking since 2003. “We’ll bounce back," coach Jerry Kill said. "They’ll go back to work and learn. This hurts, and it should hurt. That’s part of life -- you don’t win all the time. This is when you find out who you are.”

We know what Miami is -- incredibly, improbably MAC champion.

"What an unbelievable feeling," Robinson said. "You'd never think something like this would happen after a 1-11 season."

Non-AQ What to Watch, Week 14

December, 2, 2010
Come one, come all for your top 5 non-AQ storylines for Week 14:

1. How does Boise State respond? The Broncos lost last week for the first time since Dec. 23, 2008, against TCU in the Poinsettia Bowl. So it’s safe to say this team doesn’t have much experience when it comes to playing a game following a loss. Still, Boise State is at home against Utah State with plenty to play for -- it’s Senior Day and the team's home-winning streak is on the line. The Broncos have won 61 straight at home, and have never dropped a WAC game. They could finish 40-0 in league play at home before bolting for the Mountain West next year.

2. How does Nevada respond? The Wolf Pack face the opposite scenario on Saturday -- they have never had a win as big as their victory over Boise State, so you wonder whether there will be any sort of emotional letdown against Louisiana Tech. Coach Chris Ault and quarterback Colin Kaepernick say they have already put the Boise State win behind them. The Bulldogs' offense presents yet another challenge for a defense that is much improved this year. Key No. 1: stopping Lennon Creer.

[+] EnlargeChandler Harnish
Mike DiNovo/US PresswireChandler Harnish has passed for nearly 2,000 yards and has a 17-to-5 TD-INT ratio.
3. Can Northern Illinois make it 10 in a row? The Huskies are one of the hottest teams in the country, having won nine straight en route to the MAC title game Friday night. They are riding their first BCS ranking since 2003, at No. 25, and have been an offensive machine the last three games. Miami (Ohio) needed help to get into this game, but the RedHawks boast MAC Coach of the Year Mike Haywood and the best turnaround in college football. Still, Northern Illinois has two of the best offensive players in the league in Chandler Harnish and Chad Spann, while Miami must play without starting quarterback Zac Dysert.

4. SMU run game vs. UCF run defense. Even though the Mustangs play the run 'n' shoot on offense, they have the best running back in the league in Zach Line, averaging 108 yards a game. He is the only runner averaging over 100 yards a game in Conference USA. But he will face a difficult task in the C-USA title game against a UCF run defense that ranks No. 1 in the league. The Knights have given up a league-low nine rushing touchdowns. For more on this matchup, stay tuned for my preview video later today.

5. Do Louisiana Tech and/or Middle Tennessee go bowling? They are the last two teams with bowl hopes from the non-AQs, and both face difficult tasks against conference leaders. Louisiana Tech (5-6) hosts WAC co-leader Nevada and Middle Tennessee (5-6) plays at Sun Belt champion FIU. The Sun Belt has three bowl tie-ins but only two bowl-eligible teams, so a win here would get the Blue Raiders in. If Louisiana Tech wins, it would need help to find a bowl spot, but something could be worked out if Boise State doesn’t play in a WAC tie-in game.

Non-AQ Picks, Week 14

December, 2, 2010
Upsets cost me all three games last week and I ended up 7-3 again. But hey, I nailed Akron’s first win of the season!

With a 86-48 overall record, bring on Week 14.

No. 11 Boise State 55, Utah State 10. This game could go two ways: the Broncos could sleepwalk their way through after their devastating 34-31 overtime loss last week to Nevada. Or they could absolutely dominate in their final home game of the season, to close out their stint in the WAC with a perfect home record. Betting on the latter.

No. 17 Nevada 35, Louisiana Tech 24. Nevada might suffer an emotional hangover after its big win, and Louisiana Tech is fighting for a bowl berth. The Bulldogs are at home, and with a win they become bowl eligible. Lennon Creer has been outstanding, and so has Phillip Livas. But Colin Kaepernick, Vai Taua and Rishard Matthews are going to be hard to stop for a team that allowed one-win San Jose State to score 38 last week.

No. 25 Northern Illinois 38, Miami (Ohio) 20 (Friday). The Huskies have won nine straight and are the heavy favorites headed into the MAC title game in Detroit. Meanwhile, Miami (Ohio) was the least likely team to make it this far, after going 1-11 last season. The combination of Chad Spann and Chandler Harnish is going to be too hard to stop. This offense has averaged 65 points in its last three games.

UCF 31, SMU 21. The Knights are in the Conference USA title game for the third time, while SMU is making its first appearance. UCF has the best defense in the conference, and is bigger and more physical along the line of scrimmage. That should help the Knights slow down Zach Line, who leads the league in rushing. SMU has struggled making big plays this season, and it will be tough sledding against UCF.

FIU 35, Middle Tennessee 28. The Panthers have won four straight and already clinched a share of the Sun Belt championship, while the Blue Raiders are playing for their bowl lives. A win for Middle Tennessee and they become bowl eligible. Dwight Dasher has been inconsistent, while FIU is playing with a confidence never before seen in this program.

UPSET SPECIAL: Fresno State 40, Illinois 35 (Friday). You know the Illini will be seeking revenge for what happened last season, when the Bulldogs won a wild 53-52 game after offensive lineman Devan Cunningham caught a deflected pass on a 2-point conversion with seconds left in the game. This has been a disappointing season for the Bulldogs, but three of their losses have been to AP Top 25 teams. Count on Logan Harrell and Chris Carter to be able to get pressure on Nathan Scheelhaase, and a big game from QB Ryan Colburn.

Hawaii 55, UNLV 13. The Warriors should become the sixth team in school history to win 10 games. Key stat to watch: Greg Salas needs eight receptions to break Davone Bess’ single-season record of 108 set in 2007 and 133 yards to eclipse Ashley Lelie’s single-season mark of 1,713 set in 2001. Also, can Alex Green get 300 yards rushing again?

Idaho 38, San Jose State 20. The Spartans got a huge game from Jordan La Secla last week in a loss to Louisiana Tech, but go into their season finale with just four healthy seniors available to play. The injury bug has been absolutely brutal. Idaho, meanwhile, has had a disappointing season after going to a bowl in 2009 but has more talent and depth to win.

Troy 28, FAU 17. The Owls got off to a rocky start this season, then fought their way back to near bowl eligibility before losing last week to Middle Tennessee. Though the Trojans have struggled and are having a subpar season by their standards, they have won six of their seven meetings with FAU and are playing for bowl positioning.

Chad Spann tabbed MAC's top player

December, 1, 2010
Northern Illinois senior running back Chad Spann won the Vern Smith Leadership Award, presented annually to the MAC's top football player, and was also selected the MAC Offensive Player of the Year, the league announced Wednesday.

Spann is tied for the national lead with 20 touchdowns, and has 226 carries for 1,239 yards this season. Spann set the Northern Illinois school record with 20 rushing touchdowns in a single season and his 48 total career touchdowns is tied with Michael Turner for second place on the Huskies’ all-time list.

In other awards: Kent State defensive tackle Roosevelt Nix was recognized as the Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. Miami (Ohio) coach Mike Haywood was selected Coach of the Year and Toledo kickoff returner Eric Page was selected the Special Teams Player of the Year.

Nix led the MAC with 10 sacks and 20 tackles for loss and ranked second in the conference with four forced fumbles. Haywood led the greatest turnaround in college football this season, taking the RedHawks to an 8-4 record and MAC title game after going 1-11 last season.

Page led the conference with three kickoff returns for touchdowns and topped the MAC with with a 31.8 kickoff return average, which also ranked fourth in the nation.

Temple had eight first-team selections, while Northern Illinois had six. Buffalo defensive back Davonte Shannon became the fourth player in MAC history to be named a four-time All-MAC first team selection.

Here are the complete first, second and third teams:

(Read full post)

Northern Illinois overcomes adversity

November, 30, 2010
The start to the season was filled with enough adversity to potentially split Northern Illinois apart.

There was an ugly loss to Iowa State in the opener, in which the Huskies failed to get anything going offensively behind quarterback DeMarcus Grady. There was a close win over North Dakota, in which the Huskies led just 16-14 late in the third quarter before winning 23-17. Then there was the illness to coach Jerry Kill, hospitalized the following week following complications from gallbladder surgery.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidJerry Kill has the Huskies ranked in the Top 25 for the first time since 2003.
As Kill lay in a hospital bed for that week in September, his players worried about him and wondered whether he would return to coach the team against Illinois. Kill, of course, never had any doubt, and returned to the sideline to see his team nearly upset the Illini.

That was Sept. 18

The Huskies have not lost since then. After reeling off nine straight wins following a 1-2 start, Northern Illinois (10-2) is ranked No. 25 for the first time since 2003, and is playing its best football since Kill became coach in 2008. They just completed the first undefeated MAC regular season in school history and now head to the MAC championship game Friday night against Miami (Ohio) in Detroit, a game the Huskies are favored to win.

“All the things we went through at the beginning of the season brought the team together,” said running back Chad Spann, who leads the MAC in rushing with 1,239 yards and 20 TDs. “We came together and we all matured as a group and that’s added to our success.”

The week Kill was hospitalized, the players decided they would play for him because they didn’t want to let him down. Players also credit the coaching staff for keeping them focused and not panicking, keeping them updated on Kill’s condition at every step.

“Them showing that calm under pressure is what allowed for the players not to collapse,” kick returner Tommy Davis said.

After that loss to Illinois, the Huskies went on the road and beat Minnesota -- their second win over a Big Ten team in as many seasons.

Of course, the Huskies are right where they expected and most experts expected them to be when the season started. After struggling on offense against the Cyclones, Kill decided to bench Grady in favor of Chandler Harnish. It proved to be a wise decision.

Harnish, the starter last season, had been slow to recover from a knee injury but has lived up to his potential as a dual-threat standout. He ranks second on the team with 761 yards rushing and five touchdowns, and has passed for 1,949 yards and 17 touchdowns.

His ability to run and pass has opened up opportunities for Spann. The Huskies lead the MAC in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense. Spann says, “It’s turned into a high-profile offense.”

The always understated Kill knows there is still another goal out there, and that is to win the MAC. But one of the biggest goals coming into the season was to help a senior class that went 2-10 in 2007 go 10-2 this season.

Kill has made this program better in each of his three seasons, and will become the first coach in school history to take the Huskies to three straight bowl games.

“It’s fun watching something grow,” Davis said. “My first year here was Coach Kill’s first year here, and the success surprised me a little bit. It’s just the coaching philosophy he has and the way he does things that allows his teams to be successful. It’s great to watch something grow and it’s great to be a part of something grow like this. We’re looking forward to finishing the season strong and completing the journey.”

Northern Illinois looks MAC-nificent

November, 10, 2010
Northern Illinois and Toledo went into their nationally televised game undefeated in league play. But the Huskies showed just how far the Rockets have to go into order to contend for a MAC title in a 65-30 victory Tuesday night.

Now the Huskies (8-2, 6-0) are alone atop the West and the only unbeaten team left in MAC play. They already beat co-East leader Temple earlier this year and have now won seven straight. Northern Illinois can win its first MAC West title since 2005 with a win over either Ball State or Eastern Michigan.

"Our kids are believing in each other," Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said. "When you get a little confidence, things seem to fall into place. I think the kids are playing with confidence right now. We've got two more weeks. You can't listen to all the things people say, you have to keep getting better. We still can get better. That's the good thing, we can get a lot better."

Hard to imagine how much better given what the Huskies did Tuesday night. Northern Illinois ran for 422 yards on the ground, as Chandler Harnish passed for and ran for a touchdown, and Chad Spann had three touchdowns on the ground. Harnish ended up leading the team in passing (162) and rushing (149). The Huskies led 28-0 at halftime and essentially were able to do whatever they wanted in the first half.

"It's a tremendous feeling," Spann said. "There was a lot of tradition in this game. It's a big game for both teams for our postseason goals. To be able to have the showing we did and put up as many points as we did, it really feels good."

As for Toledo (6-3, 5-1), coach Tim Beckman blamed poor tackling and an inability to fit the scheme properly for the problems on defense. The Rockets also had redshirt freshman quarterback Terrance Owens make his first career start in place of Austin Dantin, out with a shoulder injury.

Owens went 18-of-38 for 186 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, but the Rockets simply dug themselves a hole too big to overcome. The 65 points were the most the Rockets have given up since losing 81-0 to Miami (Ohio) in 1953.

"We're just a very young football team," Beckman said. "When you're only playing three, four seniors, a first start for a quarterback ... there's some things we'll improve on. We'll learn from this situation and try to build for the next football games."

Toledo closes the season against Bowling Green and Central Michigan, and is still bowl eligible for the first time since 2005.

But the story of the MAC season is Northern Illinois.

Toledo, NIU ready for showdown

November, 9, 2010
Toledo has a proud football tradition that had fallen on hard times recently. Enter Tim Beckman.

The second-year coach has energized and revitalized the program, and now the Rockets go into a huge game on national television against Northern Illinois tonight with MAC title hopes on the line. Both teams are 5-0 in the West, and whoever wins controls their destiny for a spot in the conference title game.

Not bad for a team picked to finish fourth in the division this season.

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Douglas C. Pizac/US PresswireTim Beckman has led to Toledo to a 5-0 conference record so far this season.
“Toledo’s been recognized as being one of the top programs in the Mid-American conference for so many years, it’s good to be here in November and playing for a game that means something,” Beckman said.

Beckman made it a priority to get to the MAC championship back in January. He handed out bracelets to his players that read “Operation: Ford Field” with the date of the game: 12-3-10. The Rockets went 5-7 in his first year, and lost several starters, but Beckman has the confidence his team could compete.

He got the motivational gimmick from other coaches he has worked under, learning from Urban Meyer, Jim Tressel and Mike Gundy.

“I think you have to talk about these things if you’re ever going to reach these goals,” Beckman said. “Right now it’s getting those kids to believe in one common goal. If it’s wristbands, it’s something the youth of today loves to do.”

The Rockets (6-3) have had to overcome some tough losses this season to Arizona, Boise State and a struggling Wyoming team. But they have won three straight to build momentum and are bowl eligible for the first time since 2005.

The Rockets are 5-0 in the MAC for the first time since 2004, when it ended up winning the conference title. Toledo has 10 MAC titles, and last started the league play 6-0 in 1997.

But now they face a stark reality -- playing without starting quarterback Austin Dantin for the rest of the season.

Dantin injured his shoulder in the last game against Eastern Michigan and is not expected to return this season. Redshirt freshman Terrance Owens stepped in and threw for 234 yards and four touchdowns to help the Rockets win, but Northern Illinois (7-2) is a far better team than Eastern Michigan.

Owens and Dantin had competed for the starting job during the preseason. Dantin won out, but Beckman said Owens never hung his head and has worked hard to improve.

“He continues to get better,” Beckman said. “He struggled a bit during two-a-days, but since then he’s progressed probably faster than most quarterbacks I’ve seen or been around.”

Northern Illinois probably expected to be in this position when the season started. The Huskies were picked to win the division, and have played well with Chandler Harnish and Chad Spann leading the way. They lead the MAC in rushing offense, scoring offense and total offense.

Spann leads the league in rushing and already has 1,000 yards. But the Toledo defense has been opportunistic and is tied for the national lead with 16 interceptions.

Adding more fuel to the fire in this game -- Toledo has won 14 of the past 16 games in the series. Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill said he has gotten plenty of e-mails in the past week from fans eager to see the Huskies win this one.

“When you’re having a bit more success, people want to see that,” Kill said. “There’s no question with success comes more energy, more interest, more excitement. I don’t know how you can ask for a better setting for college football on Tuesday night.”