Season review: NIU closes with flourish

Chandler Harnish and NIU may have started slow, but they finished with a flourish. Zumapress/Icon SMI

Northern Illinois' 2011 football season had its early downs, but the Huskies turned their year around and ended it with much celebration. Here's a look back on the year that was for the Huskies.

The 2011 season in a nutshell: Northern Illinois dropped three of its first five games under first-year coach Dave Doeren. Few could have expected such a slow start for the Huskies, but then again, few could have also expected such a strong finish for them. Northern Illinois won its last nine games of the season. The Huskies took the MAC West with a surprising blowout over Western Michigan and a 63-60 win over Toledo, defeated Ohio in the MAC championship and beat Arkansas State 38-20 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl on Sunday. They finished just outside the final top 25 rankings.

Team MVP: Other than Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III, there probably wasn't a better dual-threat quarterback than Northern Illinois' Chandler Harnish in the country this season. Harnish finished 15th in the nation in rushing with 1,379 yards and led all quarterbacks in that category. He also ran for 11 touchdowns. He was 237-of-384 passing for 28 touchdowns and six interceptions.

Defensive MVP: Senior linebacker Pat Schiller led a young and inexperienced defense this season. He had a team-high 115 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Unsung heroes: Harnish gets a lot of credit for the team's offensive production, but that success also had a lot to do with the Huskies' experienced offensive line. Senior tackles Trevor Olson and Keith Otis, senior guard Joe Pawlak, junior guard Logan Pegram and senior center Scott Wedige started a combined 173 games in their careers.

Highest point of the season: Northern Illinois rallied from a 20-0 second-half deficit to defeat Ohio 23-20 in the MAC championship game. Harnish connected with Martel Moore and Nathan Palmer for touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and Matthew Sims made up for a missed extra point with a 33-yard field goal to win the game as time expired. It was the Huskies' first MAC title since 1983.

Lowest point of the season: Being routed by Wisconsin 49-7 at Soldier Field wasn't easy to swallow for the Huskies, but their lowest point was falling to Central Michigan a few weeks later. Northern Illinois dropped to 2-3, and its hopes of a MAC championship and even a bowl game didn't appear great at the time.

Quote of the year: "What happened last year? Like I said yesterday, this is where our senior class would leave our legacy, and why not go out the hard way? The only history worth a damn is the one we create today. We had some bad demons we wanted to avenge from last year, but this feels good." -- Harnish after the MAC championship .

Looking ahead: Northern Illinois will have plenty of shoes to fill on offense next season. It loses four starting offensive linemen, a senior starting tailback and fullback, three key senior wide receivers, two senior tight ends and Harnish. The good news is there will be nine defensive starters back.