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Northern Illinois defense needs to give offense a break



Time: 7, ESPN2, 670-AM.

Records: NIU 6-3, 4-1 MAC; ­Bowling Green 4-5, 2-3.

The story line: Last week’s 63-60 win over Toledo extended the Huskies’ winning streak to four games, made them bowl-eligible and gave them a share of the MAC West lead. Tonight’s game is NIU’s third straight on the road and first at Bowling Green in eight seasons.

The line: NIU by 51/2.

Lacy J. Banks’ pick: NIU, 42-28.

Updated: December 9, 2011 8:21AM

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio — Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren perhaps is ceasing his optimism about his defense.

After the Huskies (6-3, 4-1 Mid-American Conference) beat Toledo 63-60 last Tuesday, Doeren refused, for a change, to say anything about the improvement he had continued to see in his inexperienced defense.

Tuesday against Bowling Green (4-5, 2-3) Doeren knows it’s unfair to expect his league-leading offense (41.2 points per game) to cover for his league-worst defense (35.6).

“We’re going to have to play a much better defensive game,” Doeren said. “We have to get enough stops where our offense can keep doing what they’re doing. [But] we can’t make our offense have to score that many points to win a game.”

What Doeren did see was improvement in kickoff returns. Freshman wide receiver Tommylee Lewis ran back the Huskies’ first two kickoff returns for touchdowns against Toledo. Big plays such as those allowed the Huskies to run 26 fewer plays than the Rockets. That’s an energy-conserving way to compile 532 yards of total offense.

When Doeren first brought Lewis in, he intended to red-shirt him because he believed he had enough speed at receiver in Nathan Palmer, Perez Ashford and Martel Moore.

But Doeren changed his mind during training camp.

“He made plays left and right,” Doeren said. “I’m like, ‘Man, this guy’s got a different gear.’ He’s 5-6, and a lot of [coaches] look at a guy that short and don’t give him a chance. But he plays way bigger than he is. He’s super-aggressive and not afraid of anything or anyone.”

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