By Nathan Lindquist

“Must-win” is not an expression players or coaches like to throw around. The phrase hints at a certain level of team-urgency and desperation for a victory to get back on track to reach the postseason.

But Garrett Wolfe is not shying away from the dreaded term. After a disappointing 1-3 start, the junior running back said NIU is feeling the pressure to win all its games from here on out.

“It’s most definitely a must-win game,” Wolfe said. “We lose another game and we’re pretty much out of the championship race. If everyone on the team doesn’t realize our backs are against the wall, then it’s very disappointing.”

With postseason aspirations on the line, NIU (1-3 overall, 0-1 MAC) hosts Miami-Ohio (2-2, 1-1) tonight in front of a national televised audience on ESPN2 in a meeting of two teams in identical situations.

The RedHawks began their MAC schedule with a 38-37 loss at home to Central Michigan, while the Huskies rallied from a 21 point fourth quarter deficit only to lose at Akron 48-42 in overtime. In the last 18 years, only two teams have lost more than one conference game and won the MAC title.

In the loss to Akron, the normally potent Huskie running game ground to a halt, as the Zips defense focused on Wolfe and held NIU to only 50 yards rushing. With the ground game essentially neutralized, Coach Joe Novak opted to turn junior quarterback Phil Horvath loose to the tune of 486 yards and six touchdowns.

Following the mold of the current Philadelphia Eagles offense, Wolfe took over the role of Brian Westbrook, catching screen passes and totaling 112 yards receiving and a touchdown.

“It’s another way to get Garrett the ball,” Novak said. “He had almost a 60 yard touchdown on a screen pass. If we can get it to Garrett and A.J. [Harris] they can do something with it afterwards. Phil has done a good job of getting the ball to the open man.”

But NIU has made a reputation as a running team during Novak’s tenure, a fact not lost on Miami coach Shane Montgomery. With NIU leading the MAC in rushing with 211 yards per game, the RedHawks’ boss will concentrate on shutting down Wolfe and senior running back Harris.

“They’re a physical, hard-nosed team,” Montgomery said. “They will try to run the ball to start with and try to establish the run. On paper, it looks like a high scoring game. But you never know. It will be a physical game. We’ll try to stop the run on defense.”

With both teams averaging more than 30 points per game, a high-scoring contest is expected. Miami senior quarterback Josh Betts is averaging 313 passing yards per game, and his favorite target is senior wideout Martin Nance. Nance is the reigning MAC East Offensive Player of the Week with his fourth straight game of more than 100 yards receiving and two touchdowns, in a 44-16 rout of Cincinnati Wednesday.

The combination of Nance and junior wide receiver Ryne Robinson, each averaging 108 yards receiving per game, will undoubtedly stretch the NIU secondary. But after his career day at Akron, Horvath and senior wide receiver Sam Hurd cannot be ignored either. Hurd had 14 catches against Akron for 139 yards and three touchdowns, and Horvath sits fourth in the MAC with 1,187 yards passing.

But despite the roadblock last week, Wolfe said the team will stick to its running mentality.

“I think we’re going to try and get back to what we do,” Wolfe said. “The reason we weren’t running the ball well was because of things we didn’t do. We’ve always been a run-first program, and I don’t think that’s going to change.”