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UT-NIU becoming bigger rivalry

Managing Editor

Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 01:11

Theirs is not a rivalry born of a shared border but rather one which has developed from palpable tension, mutual respect and of course, dominance.

 Since 2010 no two Mid-American Conference programs have posted better league records than Northern Illinois (9-1, 6-0) and Toledo (8-2, 5-1), the MAC West division foes who boast 21-1 and 19-3 respective marks the past two-plus seasons.

Lacking a geographically-based rival in the conference, it follows that Northern would direct its contempt toward the other powerhouse in the division, the Rockets, a team which also holds a 29-10 overall edge in the series.

 And while the Battle for I-75 holds an unquestioned sentimental significance to the UT football team and its faithful, in recent years the cross-division showdown against Bowling Green has scarcely carried the on-field weight of the Rocketsannual clash with NIU.

 Both teams entered raucous Huskie Stadium undefeated in conference play two years ago, before NIU throttled the Rockets 60-35 behind junior quarterback and first-team All-MAC honoree Chandler Harnish, who threw for 161 yards and rushed for 149 more, averaging more than 10 yards per attempt in each category. 

The MAC West crown was on the line again in 2011, this time at the Glass Bowl, where the rivalry took a bizarre twist before the teams even had a chance to test their mettle.

 A newcomer to the MAC West showdown, freshman linebacker Jamaal Bass purposefully barreled over members of the Rocket Marching Band as the Huskies jogged onto the field following a pre-game show.

As the game was broadcast on ESPN2 for the second-straight season, the incident was caught on camera, resulting in Bass’ suspension by NIU and a plea of “no contest” to first-degree misdemeanor assault in Lucas County court.

Bass assisted on two tackles to make a minimal impact on the game at best, and though Toledo grabbed a share of the MAC West by equaling the Huskies 8-1 conference record, Northern earned the right to represent the division in the conference championship by winning a 63-60 shootout, as the teams combined for a ridiculous 1,121 yards of total offense. NIU went on to win the MAC Championship, topping Ohio in a 23-20 thriller in Detroit, a fact that surely left a bitter taste in the collective mouth of Toledo program which has not claimed a MAC crown since 2004.

Earlier this month it appeared as though the Rockets would enter Wednesday’s contest at Northern touting a national ranking, but days after making their way into the Top 25 while sitting at home, the University of Toledo played their way out of the rankings at the Glass Bowl Nov. 6 on national television.

The Rockets committed 10 penalties for 111 yards, including three personal fouls, during a 34-27 loss to Ball State (7-3, 4-2). Toledo committed seven penalties for 81 yards in the first half alone, two of which negated David Fluellen touchdown runs.

The biggest blunder of the night, however, was perpetrated not by a player, but rather first-year UT head coach Matt Campbell. Tied at 27, Campbell opted to go for it on 4th-and-one from the Cardinals 14 early in the fourth quarter, a decision which ultimately led to Ball State’s game-winning touchdown.

A tactical error also aided a game-winning drive last Nov. 1 in Toledo’s division-determining meeting with the Huskies.

Ignoring pleas from at least one assistant, former Rockets head coach Tim Beckman opted to keep a pair of timeouts in his pocket on Northern Illinois’ final scoring drive, instead watching as the Huskies burned nearly four minutes off the clock before scoring the game-winning touchdown with 19 seconds left.

A spot in the Top 25 is off the table for the Rockets, at least for the regular season. But unlike last season, UT will have an opportunity to bounce back from critical mistakes made in a big game with its goal from the outset of the year — winning the Mid-American Conference crown — still within reach.

It’s possible the Rockets error-riddled loss to the Cardinals will serve as additional perspective heading into the most meaningful game of the year. Regardless, in order to satisfy their ambitions, the Rockets must avoid missteps Wednesday night under the most demanding circumstances of the 2012 campaign — on national television, at Huskie Stadium where NIU has racked up 20-straight wins.

Now, that is of course, assuming Toledo can dispatch of the bumbling Akron Zips (1-10, 0-7) the following week at home, speculation that falls strictly in contradiction with Campbell’s one-game-at-a-time approach, but is nevertheless quite reasonable.

But while efficient play and focus on the task at hand should be all that is necessary to best the Zips, it might not be enough to propel the Rockets past a Northern Illinois team which has extended its conference win-streak to 14 and has not dropped a game since its season opener, a 18-17 loss at Iowa.

Dekalb always provides for a hostile environment but Northern and their fans admittedly turn it up an extra notch for the developing UT-NIU rivalry. There is no doubt they will fill every one of Huskie Stadium’s 24,000 seats to watch their high-powered NIU team take on the Rockets. 

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