- Jason Whitlock
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There's something unique about Northern Illinois football, a reason the Huskies keep showing up in the Mid-American Conference Game of the Decade.
That's what we have Wednesday night on ESPN2, Ball State versus Northern Illinois, the best MAC football game since Chris Fowler, Coach Corso, Herbie and the "GameDay" crew hyped No. 12 Northern Illinois versus No. 23 Bowling Green from inside Doyt Perry Stadium in 2003.
The midweek clash for control of the MAC West is a secret so sweet that part of me doesn't want to share it. I'd rather watch as word leaks out organically over Twitter on Wednesday night. This could be a Category 5 MAC-nado.
Weather permitting, we're going to witness an offensive shootout that would rival Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant squaring off in a game of one-on-one in their respective primes. The points won't be a product of bad defense. The 20th-ranked Huskies (9-0) field a dynamic rushing attack led by a skinny Tebow, Jordan Lynch, the nation's seventh-leading rusher. The unranked Cardinals (9-1) field a dynamic passing attack led by the poor man's Tom Brady, Keith Wenning, the nation's fourth-leading passer.
It's going to take 51 points to win this showdown.
When it's over, I hope both teams get the respect they're due, particularly the Huskies. Joe Novak turned Northern Illinois into the Fresno State of the Midwest. It's not a coincidence NIU keeps knocking off BCS teams and showing up in the national rankings. He built the 2003 Huskies team that shocked Alabama in Tuscaloosa and rose to No. 12 in the nation. During a 12-year stint in the 1990s and 2000s, Novak laid a foundation for sustained success similar to what Pat Hill did at Fresno State.
Continuity is rare in the Mid-American Conference. Coaches come and go quickly.
"Either a coach wins big and gets offered a million dollars from a BCS school or a coach loses and gets fired," Novak told me Monday afternoon. "That's MAC football. There's no in-between."
Practically no one builds a program. After developing Josh Harris into a playmaking QB and winning nine games in 2002, Urban Meyer bolted from Bowling Green after two seasons. At Miami, Terry Hoeppner rode Ben Roethlisberger to a job at Indiana. Brian Kelly and Butch Jones stayed at Central Michigan for three years each before finding bigger paychecks. It took six years for Brady Hoke to turn Ball State into a monster, and then he left for San Diego State.
All of the coaches made the absolute right decisions. Novak wishes he had had their options. He didn't. Despite regularly thumping BCS teams, including beating No. 15 Maryland, No. 21 Alabama and Iowa State during the first month of the season in 2003, Novak never got offered a bigger paycheck from a school in a bigger conference.
He was too old. He was 50 when he landed the NIU job in 1995. He was 58 when the Huskies finished 10-2 in 2003. Bowling Green thumped Northern Illinois in the Game of the Decade. Josh Harris passed for more than 400 yards. The 2003 Huskies, Novak's best team, were the third-best team in the MAC. Roethlisberger's Miami team finished 13-1 and ranked No. 10. The Bowling Green Falcons finished 11-3 and ranked No. 23.
Novak never won a conference championship. But he is primarily responsible for the success NIU enjoys today. He took over a program that was in disarray. In the mid-1980s, coming off Bill Mallory's successful tenure at the school, Northern Illinois hatched the farfetched dream of joining the Big Eight. The school left the MAC and became an independent. It started scheduling traditional powerhouses and recruiting talented junior-college players. NIU became a mediocre football team loaded with bad characters.
"When I took the job, our school president told me he was afraid of some of our players," Novak remembered. "We had to start over and recruit high school kids."
Starting over was rough. Novak went 3-30 his first three seasons.
"I wouldn't have survived in this era," he said. "You can't go 3-30. The president and athletic director were under a lot of pressure from outside forces, but they never put that pressure on me. I told them when I took the job it wouldn't be a quick fix."
Age and a slow start kept Novak at Northern Illinois. Those two coincidences allowed Novak to establish roots in Dekalb, Ill. Those roots gave him the credibility to push the administration to invest in facilities when the program became successful. NIU's Yordon Athletics Center and indoor Chessick Practice Center make the school the class of the MAC.
Novak is the glue most mid-majors don't have. He retired from Northern Illinois, and the school honors his legacy. Most mid-majors are disconnected from their history. The players don't even know the school's history. It's difficult to build pride, difficult to set a standard for excellence.
Instead, every bright young football coach in America would love to coach at Northern Illinois. The school has everything a young coach needs to win and attract the attention of a bigger school. Minnesota's Jerry Kill and North Carolina State's Dave Doeren followed Novak at NIU.
The players accept that NIU is a stepping-stone school and realize the school will always attract the top qualified young coach in America. It's a great setup for a mid-major.
Currently, the Huskies are two-time defending MAC champions and went to the Orange Bowl for their first BCS Bowl invitation last season.
Having said all of that, I expect my Ball State Cardinals to win this shootout. This is potentially the greatest Ball State team in history. Our offense can score on anybody, including Bama. (I'm not joking.) Wenning is a pro quarterback, a midround draft pick. Running back Jahwan Edwards will be drafted in 2015, and so will receiver Willie Snead. The offensive line is solid. Defensively, our safeties are physical, our corners can cover, and up front Nathan Ollie and Jonathan Newsome make plays in the backfield.
It's going to be an incredible game. Ball State 51, Northern Illinois 48.
Bring on Bama!
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