Seniors get last chance at topping Rockets, MAC West

By Sean Ostruszka

Josh Haldi never did it. Neither did Michael Turner. Or LeShon Johnson. The names go on and on.

Now Brian Van Acker hopes he doesn’t become the next name on the list.

That’s why he’s had Nov. 16 in the back of his mind since before the season started.

That’s the game. The game NIU hasn’t been able to get past in 15 years: The Toledo game.

At 6:30 p.m. today at Toledo’s Glass Bowl on ESPN2, Van Acker and the rest of the NIU seniors will try to make sure they don’t go their entire college career without beating Toledo like so many before them have.

“In all my life I’ve never had one team I couldn’t beat,” said Van Acker. “Except Toledo.”

The facts of Toledo’s dominance read like a cruel joke: won every NIU matchup since 1989, lead the overall series 26-6, won every home game over NIU since 1972.

The history is inescapable. And the rivalry has only escaladed in recent memory. And as the games have become more important, the loses have been more crushing.

That’s why the Huskies have had this game circled on their calendars for so long.

“It’s something we haven’t done,” said NIU coach Joe Novak of beating the Rockets. “I hoped in August that this would be an important game and it is.”

Important may not be a strong enough word. Tonight’s game holds a trip to the MAC championship in the balance. A Toledo win would clinch the MAC West and assure it a place in Detroit for the MAC championship game Dec. 1. A win for NIU puts it one win away from the division title.

But if the Huskies hope to keep their dream alive, they’ll have to deal with some adversity.

Redshirt freshman Dan Nicholson will make his first collegiate start. The Chicago native took over for Phil Horvath against Central Michigan when Horvath went down with a broken arm in the first quarter.

Nicholson may be getting some help, though. Junior running back Garrett Wolfe has been back in practice and may be able to take the field tonight.

“He’ll be a game-time decision,” Novak said. “He’s made good progress and I think there’s a chance. But I’ll have to see something in his eyes that he wants to play.”

While NIU’s backfield is in flux, Toledo’s has been nothing short of solid.

Third-year starter Bruce Gradkowski is one of the nation’s most consistent quarterback and has completed more than 70 percent of his passes. And the running backs, led by senior Trinity Dawson, lead the MAC in rushing.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons,” Novak said. “And they are really physical. Their thing has all been about playing physical.

“I think we match up better than most other teams, which is why there’s such a rivalry. But if we want to win we are going to have to be more physical. They have always been more physical than us and that’s why they beat us.”

But Toledo coach Tom Amstutz was just as wary of NIU’s offensive weapons: the potential of Wolfe’s rushing, which led the nation earlier this season, and the air attack that Nicholson and receiver Sam Hurd showed in last week’s victory over Central Michigan.

“I’m expecting we’ll see elements of both [rushing and passing] in this game,” Amstutz said. “It’s a situation we have to be ready to adjust to as the game goes on. We’re prepared for both styles of football.”

– Sports Editor Steve Brown contributed to this article.