Let’s get this out of the way right now. Northern Illinois has a good football team.
For those you think Iowa is opening the 2018 season Saturday with a cupcake from the Mid-American Conference, think again.
The Huskies were 8-5 last season and lost their final two games — including a 36-14 whipping from Duke in the Quick Lane Bowl — but return their entire offensive line and quarterback Marcus Childers.
“Anytime you have all five offensive linemen and your quarterback back, you know it’s a good start,” NIU offensive coordinator/tight ends/fullbacks coach Mike Uremovich said in a post on the school’s website.
The defense has a only six returning starters, but is led by All-American Sutton Smith, That’s not a bad place to start, either.
Here are 5 Things about the Huskies ahead of their Kinnick Stadium visit:
1. Get to know Marcus Childers
The 6-foot, 222-pound Childers started the final eight games last year and passed for 1,674 yards, adding 473 on the ground. He completed 57 percent of his 265 passes and had 16 touchdowns and five interceptions.
He was the MAC Freshman of the Year.
Head coach Rod Carey said Monday during the conference teleconference the experience Childers got last year is huge.
“I think he has taken the next step in the quarterback evolution,” Carey said, noting the game has slowed down for his sophomore QB. “That all starts with his attitude.”
But, he added, “he’s got to go out and do it on game day.”
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2. Get to know Sutton Smith
Smith is a 6-1, 237-pound junior from Saint Charles, Mo., who came to NIU as a running back. But after making a tackle following an interception in practice one day, he got the attention of the defensive coaches.
He was moved to linebacker and, last year, was a consensus All-American as a defensive end/outside linebacker. He also was the MAC Defensive Player of the Year after collecting 63 tackles, 29.5 for loss, and 14 quarterback sacks.
Not bad for a guy who totaled 2,456 all-purpose yards (more than 2,000 rushing) as a senior at Francis Howell High School.
“He really took off with it,” Carey said when asked about the move to defense. “You just try to get your best players on the field.”
3. Local connection
Three members of the NIU football program are from Eastern Iowa, including graduate assistant Dylan Ramsey. A four-year letterwinner at the University of Dubuque, Ramsey grew up in Urbana and played football for Center Point-Urbana. An intern last year at NIU, he was promoted to GA this year and works with special teams and wide receivers.
Dan Wolfe is Director of Internal Football Operations. He grew up between Ely and Shueyville and graduated from Cedar Rapids Prairie in 2003. He played at Iowa Central for one season before transferring to Iowa and, eventually, moved up to head football operations manager. His stepbrother, Aaron Christner, also worked at Iowa before joining the operations staff at NIU.
In a Facebook message, Wolfe wrote he “assists the head coach (with) all daily tasks, organizes our team community service and outreach, do all of our social media ...,” among other things.
He said all three grew up huge Hawkeye fans and are “all really excited about next Saturday. For Dylan ... one of his career goals in coaching is to work a game in Kinnick. For Aaron and I it’s a chance to be back home and experience the wave for the first time.”
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Working with the community is something Wolfe takes great pride in, and the “Kinnick Wave” is a big deal to him.
“I have been working with the Children’s Hospital the past few weeks as we prepare for the wave and educating our players on what it means,” he wrote. “We’re signing posters, having the team members write personal notes, and making a social media video in anticipation of getting to be a part of probably the most genuine and best football tradition there is.”
“... we’re not asking for them to be fans of our team, but want them to know that they’re heroes to us and we are big fans of theirs ... and we are looking forward to waving to them from the field next Saturday.”
4. History lesson
Not many schools in any division can brag about being a national champion. Northern Illinois can.
The Huskies were named NAIA national champs in 1963 and were tabbed College Division’s best by the Associated Press. Led by Hall of Fame quarterback George Bork, NIU went 10-0 and beat Missouri State in the Mineral Water Bowl. Bork held at least 16 national records by the end of his senior season and was the first collegiate QB to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season. He completed 244 of 374 passes and had 32 touchdowns.
Bork made national TV and radio appearances and was the subject of a cartoon in the Christian Science Monitor and a full-page feature in the New York Daily News.
5. Famous alumni
The list of people who have graduate or, at least, attended NIU include actress Joan Allen, The Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin, Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck and actor Dan Castellaneta, an Emmy-award winner and the voice of Homer Simpson on “The Simpsons.”
Probably the most famous is Robert Zemeckis, who directed such blockbuster movies as “Back to the Future” and “Forest Gump.” He attended NIU before enrolling in film study at Southern Cal.
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