Northern Illinois wins with consistency

Oregon, the college football program of rain-soaked mountaintops and lush evergreen trees and crazy jerseys and too-cool-for-school helmets and a fast-break offense overshadowed only by the swoosh of Nike’s immense love for all that is Eugene and its beloved Ducks, has won more games (49) than any other Football Bowl Subdivision team since 2010.

Northern Illinois is tied for the second most with 48 … with Alabama.

But the Huskies don’t have Phil Knight on speed dial, and they’re not going to be mentioned on any lists for wearing the nation’s snazziest uniforms and, as far as we can tell, none of their fans has been known to poison beloved oak trees of a bitter rival.

That hasn’t stopped the public research university in DeKalb, Ill., 65 miles from Chicago and offering a population of near 45,000, from producing a football program that is the standard which all teams from nonpower conferences should emulate.

That has won 48 games the past four-plus seasons and has current winning streaks of 25 regular-season games and 16 straight in opposing stadiums.

That two years ago advanced to the Bowl Championship Series postseason gala and played Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Northern Illinois, which has defeated Big Ten Conference opponent Northwestern on the road this season, next visits UNLV on Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The Huskies are 9½-point favorites.

This should surprise no one.

Not every “have not” in college basketball can enjoy the recent success of Butler, and the majority of those in football will never realize the winning ways of Northern Illinois out of the Mid-American Conference. But everyone needs something to strive for, to convince themselves that if it can be done elsewhere by schools of a similar league affiliation and budgetary constraints, it can be done by them.

Even those who struggle mightily to put away (13-12?) Northern Colorado, a pathetic side from the Big Sky Conference that offshore linemakers would undoubtedly tab an underdog against Bishop Gorman.

It’s a pipe dream for most nonpower schools, being mentioned in the same breath as some of the country’s most respected programs.

Northern Illinois has managed it. Boise State. Not many others.

“I don’t really know how to (explain) it other than (Northern Illinois) keeps winning,” Rebels coach Bobby Hauck said. “They evaluate well, they recruit well, and they’ve had continuity on their coaching staff. They just do everything consistently. They look like them — big and fast. That’s what they are. You don’t win 25 in a row in the regular season without being big and fast.

“They’re just good. You don’t win unless you’re good. They’ve been good, they are good, and they keep reloading. You put on the film and watch them and you say, ‘Those guys like to play and are talented and have had a lot of guys drafted into the NFL.’ That last part isn’t the end-all, but it’s a pretty good indicator that you’ve had some guys.”

Consistency is his most important point. Northern Illinois didn’t build its immense success around one player, it just seemed that way if you saw quarterback Jordan Lynch in recent seasons. He was one of the college game’s most exciting talents, a Heisman Trophy finalist who in two years as a starter threw for 6,000 yards, rushed for 3,700 and accounted for 73 touchdowns.

He was something. Dynamic as all get out. He’s gone now.

While other programs change systems like you do socks, the Huskies have remained fairly predictable in what they do, signing more skill players than most teams would deem necessary, loading themselves up with options to maneuver behind and around what is typically a terrific offensive line.

Northern Illinois has also had three head coaches since 2008 — you win, you get offered bigger jobs for more money — and yet has managed to place itself directly alongside the likes of Oregon and Alabama for the most victories in the past four years. Lynch was a fantastic player, but he wasn’t alone.

“There have been a lot of good players run through here,” said coach Rod Carey, in his second full season leading the Huskies. “I think these (current) guys are no exception to that, and they certainly want to put their own stamp on things. I know this: You can’t worry about putting your own stamp on things without doing the work daily, and this group, like a lot of them that have come before them and ones that will come after them, have been trained in the way of how to go ahead and do the work each day, and that’s how you do those things.”

I’m not sure you can quantify this as a measuring stick game for UNLV, given the discrepancy in results between the teams and how each is viewed across the country.

But should his team manage to produce an upset, it would make by far the most noise nationally in Hauck’s tenure with the Rebels.

Beating the team up north and painting a cannon red was Hauck’s most important victory yet. This would be his best one.

That’s how respected Northern Illinois is, how good the Huskies have been.

Imagine if they had Phil Knight on speed dial.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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