Amherst, MA (SportsNetwork.com) - The 21st-ranked Northern Illinois Huskies take aim at their 14th consecutive road victory on Saturday when they invade Gillette Stadium for a Mid-American Conference tilt versus the Massachusetts Minutemen.
Northern Illinois has not missed a beat under first-year head coach Rod Carey as it enters with a perfect 8-0 record, including a 3-0 mark versus conference foes. The Huskies are currently on the longest active conference winning streak in the nation having defeated their last 21 MAC opponents. They extended the streak and notched their 24th consecutive home win last week with a 59-20 rout of Eastern Michigan in DeKalb. NIU's last road and conference loss came on Sept, 1, 2011 at Central Michigan.
The Minutemen are coming off of a heartbreaking, 31-30, home loss to Western Michigan that dropped them to a 1-7 overall record and 1-3 MAC standing. Coach Charley Molnar made a gutsy call as he elected to try a two-point conversion after Lorenzo Woodley scored on a two-yard run with only 22 seconds left to bring Massachusetts within a single point of the Broncos. Molnar's career record fell to 2-18 after A.J. Doyle overshot a wide open Elgin Long on the conversion attempt. The Minutemen's only triumph of the season came over the winless Miami-Ohio RedHawks.
The Huskies dominated UMass en route to a 63-0 decision last season in the first conference tilt between the schools in DeKalb. The Minutemen are 2-10 through their first 12 games of MAC play.
NIU is pacing the MAC in several offensive categories including scoring offense (41.9 ppg), total offense (537.1 ypg), rushing (307.5 ypg) and first downs (26.1). The Huskies' dominance is in large part due to the tremendous play of senior quarterback Jordan Lynch, who finished last week's victory over EMU with four passing touchdowns, one rushing score and a touchdown reception. In addition to being the fourth-best rusher in the nation with 1,031 yards, Lynch has completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 1,711 yards and 18 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
"He may be one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country," said Molnar on Lynch. "Beyond the obvious physical skill set that he has, he's a great runner and above-average passer. He really is the brains behind their offense when he is out there on the field. He does it all; he's the unequivocal leader for their football team."
Cameron Stingily has also been a big factor in NIU's success, as he has carried the ball 133 times for 726 yards and seven scores himself. Stingily missed last week due to turf toe, but Carey expects him to play Saturday. More help is on the way as Akeem Daniels, who contributed 447 yards and nine TDs in 2012, is also nearing a return. Tommylee Lewis (58 rec., 507 yards, three TDs) and Da'Ron Brown (33 rec., 480 yards, seven TDs) are Lynch's most frequent targets.
The Huskies were shaky on the defensive side of the ball at the start of the season, but they have clearly developed into a solid unit. They are permitting an average of 25.8 ppg, while stifling opposing ball carriers to only 146.1 ypg to rank second in the MAC in rushing defense. NIU is still last among the 13 teams in the conference versus the pass with an allowance of 284.4 ypg. Jimmy Ward has helped the two-time defending MAC champions overcome their weakness against strong passing attacks with a team-high 56 tackles and five interceptions. Boomer Mays has also been a force with 43 stops, four TFL and two sacks.
"We know our rankings, but we have the mindset of every week, we're 0-0, and we have to face our next opponent, and we're looking forward to Saturday," said Mays. "I feel like we're steadily progressing and building on each week. I think that's key in what we're doing to establish ourselves as a defense."
NIU could pitch another shutout against the Minutemen this season as Molnar's offense is currently ranked last in the nation in scoring (10.6 ppg) and just a few spots higher than that in terms of total offense (283.6 ypg).
After competing with Mike Wegzyn for playing time early in the season, Doyle has taken over as the full-time starter under center. The sophomore quarterback has completed 56.5 percent of his pass attempts for 1,045 yards and five touchdowns to go with five interceptions. Doyle performed well versus WMU last week prior to his late miscue, completing 15-of-24 passes for 194 yards and a touchdown. Senior tight end Rob Branchflower showed why he is considered an NFL prospect as he reeled in seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos. Branchflower, who has only played in five games, is the second most productive pass catcher on UMass behind Tajae Sharpe, who has compiled 474 yards and three scores on 46 receptions.
The Minutemen's rushing attack has been hindered by injuries that have forced Molnar to rotate different players in his backfield. He may have located the tailback of the future in Woodley, who set single-game career highs with 16 carries and 58 yards. The freshman running back's late TD run was the first of his career as well.
UMass is slightly better on the defensive side of the ball as it ranks in the middle of the pack in the conference in scoring defense (28.9). However, it is allowing 435.9 ypg. The Minutemen's performance against WMU last week was not very encouraging as the Broncos entered the contest averaging less than 14 ppg and tallied 31 points. Sophomore defensive back Khary Bailey-Smith gave the team a lift when he returned the opening kickoff 90 yards for the first touchdown of his career last week. Justin Anderson has registered a team-high four sacks on the season. None of his teammates have recorded more than a single QB takedown.