Northern Illinois handed AP No. 20/CFP No. 24 Toledo its first loss of the 2015 season, and the Rockets’ sixth straight defeat in the series since 2010.
In this half-decade, Toledo’s been a quality program, playing in four bowl games with a fifth on the way. Northern Illinois’ just been a little bit better.
Tuesday’s result shouldn’t come as a surprise, despite the Huskies losing quarterback Drew Hare and wide receiver Tommylee Lewis in the first half. If anything, Northern Illinois rallying without two of its premier playmakers further illustrates the pecking order of the Mid-American Conference.
Northern Illinois’ growth into a legitimate college football powerhouse is one of the more interesting, if not overlooked stories of the sport’s last decade.
Only Boise State has been a more consistent, big winner among non-power conference programs in the 21st century. The Huskies are on a five-year streak of 11-plus wins, and Tuesday’s win preserves the possibility of 2015 producing a sixth.
Since 2003, NIU has won in double digits six times, nine or more seven times, and finished below .500 just twice since the turn of the millennium.
A program does not enjoy such sustained success without recruiting a deep cache of talent, which Northern Illinois has had consistently.
One key player exits? Another seamlessly steps in. Drew Hare went down with a non-contact injury Tuesday, only for Ryan Graham to complete 9-of-12 passes for 132 yards with a touchdown.
— ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) November 4, 2015
Graham’s 44-yard bomb to Kenny Golladay, who stepped up with Lewis sidelined, set up Joel Bouagnon’s game-winning touchdown rush.
The NIU quarterback line of succession is impressive. Hare threw for 18 touchdowns against just two interceptions a season ago, leading the Huskies to a third MAC championship in four years.
Before Tuesday’s injury, Hare’s season-long stat line include 1,817 yards, 13 touchdowns with three interceptions, and 232 rushing yards.
Hare’s production has flown largely under the radar, the result of following the Heisman-contending act of Jordan Lynch. Lynch set a new standard in #MACtion in his two, stellar seasons quarterbacking the Huskies, accruing 4,812 total yards in 2013, and 4,953 total yards the season prior.
Lynch set a new standard both for NIU quarterbacks and the program as a whole, highlighted by the 2013 Orange Bowl appearance. But before he launched into the stratosphere, Lynch was the unproven successor to the seemingly impossible standard set by Chandler Harnish.
Continued success despite quarterback turnover mirrors Northern Illinois’ coaching situation. Aforementioned Boise State thrived under Dirk Koetter and Dan Hawkins before Chris Petersen became the Broncos’ head coach in 2006, but Petersen’s widely credited as the man responsible for taking Boise State to national relevance.
Petersen stayed at Boise State eight seasons, a veritable lifetime for a non-power coach approaching the same zip code of success as Petersen, let alone the same neighborhood.
Northern Illinois’ had great coaches through its run. Jerry Kill is responsible for resurrecting the program after a brief slide at the end of Joe Novak’s tenure.
Kill lasted just three years in DeKalb before accepting the Minnesota vacancy. Dave Doeren stepped in and, much in the same way Lynch improved upon Harnish’s seemingly unassailable legacy, outperformed his successor.
Doeren’s success landed him the NC State job after just two years. Successor Rod Carey, now in his third season, will surely get looks in the coming coaching carousel season.
Should Carey leave, the infrastructure is in place for the next Northern Illinois coach to succeed. That can’t be said of other non-power programs.
Consider some of the other regular winners among the bunch. Aside from Boise State, in its succession from Koetter to Hawkins to Petersen to Bryan Harsin, others have notable downturns.
Marshall won a Div. I-AA under Bob Pruett in 1996, transitioned into Div. I-A in 1997 with a Heisman finalist (Randy Moss), a perfect season in 1999, bowl games every year through 2002, and at least eight wins every year to 2003.
But after Pruett’s tenure ended in 2004, the ill-fated Mark Snyder era produced consistent mediocre from which Doc Holliday has only recently begun pulling the program out of.
Perhaps the closest parallel to NIU is Georgia Southern, which transitioned from legendary Erk Russell, to Tim Stowers, to Paul Johnson and saw a recent resurgence under Jeff Monken and Willie Fritz.
As brief of a blip as the Brian VanGorder and Chris Hatcher era was at Georgia Southern, it was still a longer downturn than Northern Illinois has had in the last decade-plus.
NIU is a bonafide non-power power. Tuesday’s upset of ranked Toledo is just another footnote in the Huskies’ continued success.
That deserves a high-five.