Northern Illinois’ sputtering start to the season never allowed a “Harnish for Heisman” campaign to get off the ground.
Yet despite the Huskies’ early woes during a 2-3 start to the season and a so-so individual performance against Wisconsin, senior quarterback Chandler Harnish has generated Heisman-like numbers for a majority of the year. He may even be the nation’s premier dual-threat quarterback.
Harnish doesn’t get the publicity or respect given to Michigan’s Denard Robinson, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III, Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson or some of the other BCS dual-threat quarterbacks, but his numbers are better than most of them.
Harnish has averaged 327.8 yards of total of offense a game this season. That ranks him ninth in the country. Six of the quarterbacks ahead of him are predominantly passing quarterbacks. The other three quarterbacks are Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (164 rushing yards on 89 carries), Hawaii’s Bryant Moniz (299 yards on 80 carries) and Griffin III (386 yards on 106 carries).
Boyd’s and Moniz’s rushing numbers are too far off for them to be in the dual-threat discussion. A case can be made more for Griffin III. He has averaged 309 passing yards a game and 86 rushing yards. Harnish has averaged 225 passing yards and 102 rushing yards.
Even if Griffin III were to win that debate, Harnish is right there with him as a dual-threat quarterback.
“He's an athlete that makes plays with his feet and his arm,” ESPN Scouts Inc.’s Steve Muench said of Harnish. “He's a lot of fun to watch when he's forced to improvise. He's a perfect fit for Northern Illinois' spread sets. There's also a lot to like about four-year starters that show improvement over the course of their careers.”
From a pure running standpoint, there is no better quarterback than Harnish this season. He leads all FBS quarterbacks in rushing with 1,029 yards and his 8.0 yards per carry is tied for third with Oregon running back LaMichael James among all FBS players.
Harnish has completed 168 of 267 passes for 2,256 yards (ranks 26th), 20 touchdowns (ranks 18th) and four interceptions (tied for second least with minimum of 250 attempts). His 155.6 quarterback rating also ranks him 16th in the nation.
Of course, the one constant knock on Harnish when comparing him to BCS quarterbacks is that he plays in an inferior conference. But the MAC has produced its share of NFL quarterbacks, including Ben Roethlisberger, Byron Leftwich, Chad Pennington, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Batch, Charlie Frye and Nate Davis.
Harnish could join that group, too.
“Harnish is also an interesting NFL prospect,” Muench said. “On one hand, he has above-average mobility and enough arm strength to make all the necessary throws. I like the way he squared his shoulders to the line before he released the ball when he rolled to his left. There's nothing to suggest that his intangibles aren't above average either.
“On the other hand, he isn't quite 6-foot-2. While he flashed the ability to check down, I don't think he's seeing the entire field from within the pocket. He didn't appear to have a cannon for an arm. There will be concerns about the level of competition. There will be concerns about his ability to transition to a pro-style scheme, though this may not hurt him much. There are some elements of pro-style offenses in what Northern Illinois does, and he played in a pro-style system earlier in his career.”
For now, Northern Illinois fans are savoring what could be his final games in the upcoming weeks. He has between 2-4 games left depending on how the Huskies fare in its next two games.
Among Harnish’s supporters down this final stretch will be former Northern Illinois running back Garrett Wolfe, who made his own Heisman push in his day.
“He is the centerpiece of that offense and will go as far as he takes them,” Wolfe said. “I enjoy watching him.”