NIU will play at Toledo in the Glass Bowl Tuesday night, but this game won't be a battle over fragile antiques.
This is a pivotal late season match-up for the Huskies (5-3, 3-1 MAC). A win over the MAC West Division leading Rockets (5-3, 4-0 MAC) would equalize each teams conference record at 4-1, and could be the key NIU needs to reach the MAC championship game.
"[This is a] big-time game," said NIU linebacker Pat Schiller. "[The] winner's in the driver's seat, and it's against our rivals - doesn't really get much bigger than that. In the grand scheme of things, it's just another game, but it's hard not to think of what will happen after the game and what the win could do for us. It's definitely going to be a big one; I'm excited for it."
The importance of the game has been down played by some players, and while a loss to the Rockets could be seriously detrimental to the future of the Huskies' season, defensive end Sean Progar said confidently that the Huskies will achieve victory.
"It's obviously an important game," Progar said. "But after we win this game, the next game is just as important."
NIU comes into this game riding a three-game winning streak, which head coach Dave Doeren attributed to the strong play of his defense. Doeren went as far to state that he saw improvements in the Huskies' 31-30 win over Buffalo last week, where they gave up 30 unanswered points in the fourth quarter.
"We improved on defense in all three games," Doeren said. "Obviously not the [fourth] quarter last week, but we were out there the whole time, too. In the Buffalo game it was 31-10, and we were playing pretty good defense. They were on the field the whole time in the fourth quarter. You can go back from that game on and say we've done a better job defensively, even though statistically it doesn't show."
Toledo started the season 1-3, but won its last four games in a row on the strength of a blistering offensive output which averages 36 points a game, second only to NIU in the MAC .
This game has the potential to be an offensive shootout, and quarterback Chandler Harnish said the Huskies can't afford to stumble coming out of the gate.
"We have to start fast because they've scored 90 points in the first quarter this year compared to only giving up 20," Harnish said. "So starting fast is a huge deal."
The biggest advantage Toledo may have in this game is history. Last year, NIU stomped the Rockets in DeKalb 65-30, but the Rockets own a 29-9 advantage in the all-time series and are 18-2 against the Huskies at home.
However, difficult it may be for NIU to play in the Glass Bowl, Progar said the Huskies have experienced rough road games before and will be prepared for the game day atmosphere.
"They're going to be loud," Progar said. "They're going to be rowdy, but it's our rival school, so we're ready for it. I've been over there before as a freshman. A lot of the younger defensive guys haven't been over there, but we played at Kansas, and that was really loud."