Carlos Pineda | Staff Writer
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Northern Illinois defensive coordinator Jay Niemann has seen his defense improve over the course of the season.
It's a testament to the foundation the 15th-ranked Huskies (12-1) set into motion this past spring and continued through the year, Niemann, who is in his second season, concluded.
"Our kids have taken a lot of pride in that process," Niemann said at NIU's defensive press conference on Friday. "The players have done everything that we've asked of them in order to get to where they are right now and have done a great job throughout [the] spring, summer and fall and have put together a good year."
Despite winning 11 games last year and the first of two consecutive MAC conference titles, NIU's defense was rated 88th in the nation. The Huskies were giving up 415.2 yards per game along with over 30 points. Over the course of this season, the team now ranks in the Top 40 in total defense and has shed 11 points in opposing team scoring.
NIU's 12 wins this season broke the school record for most wins in a season and sends off the senior class as the winningest class in school history with 41 wins. With experience comes results and up front, seniors Sean Progar, Nabal Jefferson and Alan Baxter have played in over 50 games during their careers.
The Huskies recorded 40 sacks this season, which ranks second in team history. Baxter ranks 31st in the country with nine sacks and Progar has recorded 8.5.
"We've done a good job of trying to pressure the quarterback with four guys," Niemann said. "There's a learning curve there that you have to go through, and I think you've seen the curve go from kind of the infancy stages [during the first year] to where we're really polished at what we're doing now."
As many as eight Floridians on the NIU roster will start in the Orange Bowl versus Florida State, including locals sophomore Jamaal Bass and seniors Demetrius Stone and Victor Jacques.
The Huskies face a Seminoles' offense that averages nearly 40 points per game and 465.9 yards of total per contest. Senior quarterback E.J. Manuel is FSU's career-leader in completion percentage (66.8) and passed for 3,101 yards with 22 touchdowns. NIU's secondary is led by junior Jimmie Ward. Ward has a team-best 90 tackles with three interceptions and 10 pass break ups.
FSU's offensive line averages 319 pounds which has allowed the Seminoles to have one of their better offensive season in years. The Seminoles share the national lead in averaging 7.01 yards per play.
While the size difference between FSU's offensive line and the Huskies defensive front will be factor on Tuesday, NIU's Progar says the team isn't worried about that tangible.
"We are going to worry about what we can do," Progar said. "We're going to execute our game plan and hopefully that gets us to where we need to be."
The Huskies have embraced the underdog mentality with several pointing out the pressure isn't on them.
"This is a great opportunity for us to show off what we can do," Ward said. "I think my team can play with anybody, we just have to prove it."