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0-8 UMass football has tough test with 8-1 Northern Illinois

AMHERST — Despite being the Mid-American Conference’s defending champion, Northern Illinois was largely overlooked in preseason projections.

The league’s coaches and media picked Ohio as the team most likely to win the conference championship and Toledo as the MAC West Division champion.

But nine weeks into the season the 2011 champion looks as good a bet as any to hold onto the title.

UMass figures to have its hands full Saturday when it tries to take down the Huskies.

“They’re a very solid football team, probably the best team in the Mid-American Conference,” UMass coach Charley Molnar said.

Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren wasn’t overlooking the Minutemen.

“I’ve been involved in I-AA. I know moving up how much it means to those kids to play a team that won the league last year,” he said. “We’ll get their best shot.”

The following is a look at NIU’s school and program:

NOTABLE FOOTBALL ALUMNI — Atlanta Falcons running back Michael Turner; San Diego Chargers linebacker Larry English; Actor Steve Harris, who played Eugene Young on The Practice and was in the TV series Friday Night Lights, played linebacker at NIU.

OTHER NOTABLE ATTENDEES — Dan Castellana, the voice of Homer Simpson; actress Joan Allen; L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers; Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Ned Coletti.

BOWL HISTORY — The Huskies have played in four straight bowl games and six bowls over the last eight years. They’ve been to seven overall.

Time & location: 3:30 p.m., Huskie Stadium, DeKalb, Ill.

Records: UMass (0-8, 0-4 MAC); NIU (8-1, 5-0 MAC)

Last week: UMass lost to Vanderbilt, 49-7. Northern Illinois beat Western Illinois, 48-34

All-time series: First meeting

TV/Internet: Mac-sports.com

Radio: WWEI-FM (105.5), WMUA-FM (91.1)

When UMass has the ball: The Minutemen will try to end their scoring woes against the league’s top defense. NIU has allowed MAC lows in points per game (15.2) and yards per game (290.0).

“They’re defense is fast. It’s physical,” Molnar said. “They’re always in the right place.”

UMass should get a boost from a surge in offensive line depth. Not only is Nick Speller back from his academic suspension and is expected to play, but true freshman Al Leneus, who started the season as a defensive lineman, has switched sides and could start this week.

The Minutemen will need a strong showing from their line as NIU leads the conference with 26 sacks. Defensive linemen Sean Progar, Joe Windsor and Alan Baxter each have six.

Molnar was optimistic that his offense would improve this week.

“We’ve practiced well this week,” he said. “Quite frankly I think we’re just a little bit better on the offensive line with Al Leneus in there.”

When Northern Illinois has the ball: UMass has struggled all year against dual-threat quarterbacks and NIU’s Jordan Lynch will be one of the best the Minutemen have faced. He leads the conference in rushing with 1,185 yards (131.7 per game) and passing efficiency (152.2). The junior has completed 147 of 239 passes for 1,984 yards. He’s thrown 17 touchdown passes and been intercepted three times.

“He’s a great dual threat. He’s a great passer and an even better runner,” Molnar said.

Junior Martel Moore has been his favorite target with 48 catches for 717 yards and seven TDs.

The Huskies, who lead the league with 38.1 points per game, tend to do their scoring quickly. They’re last in the league in time of possession at 26:13 minutes per game. When they score, it’s usually via a touchdown. They’ve kicked just four field goals on five attempts this season.

UMass enters the game having allowed a MAC-worst 41.8 points per game.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Follow UMass coverage on Twitter at twitter.com/GazetteUMass. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.

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