'When he gets in the huddle, kids respond,' coach Novak says.
Dan Nicholson has been to Soldier Field many times before, both the original incarnation and the current space-age model.
“My dad has Bears season tickets right there, southwest corner,” Nicholson said, looking out the window of a suite on a recent visit to the new-old arena. “I’ve been coming to Bears games since I was little.”
Come Saturday, the view for Nicholson will be unparalleled. He’ll be on the field, starting at quarterback for Northern Illinois as it opens the season by hosting Iowa before a sold-out house of about 61,000. Naturally, the family will be in the audience.
Nicholson, a Chicago native who reset the passing standards at Brother Rice High School, will be more intent on eyeing the Hawkeyes defense than scouting the stands for his family. After a year of redshirt work on the scout team and two years of pushing starter Phil Horvath, Nicholson begins the season as the starter.
“It helped me,” Nicholson said of his contests with Horvath for the starting job. “I enjoyed it, getting better, it was a lot of fun. It forced me to put in extra time, to watch a lot of film. Phil was just a great quarterback, a student of the game.”
Nicholson found that extra work paying off twice in the last two seasons. Horvath went down with injuries both years and Nicholson took over, starting the final three games of the 2005 season and the last two games of last season. He acquitted himself well.
That experience, including a Mid-American Conference title game and last year’s Poinsettia Bowl, makes Nicholson much more than a raw rookie.
“When he gets in the huddle, kids respond to him,” NIU head coach Joe Novak said. “He’s a typical South Side Catholic Leaguer. Sometimes, that can get him in a little trouble, too.”
Novak, noting Nicholson’s occasional attempt to force a pass -- he threw six interceptions last season, against five touchdowns, while completing 52.2 percent of his passes -- wants that part of his game to improve, else the Huskies’ run-oriented offense will become one-dimensional, and defenses will load up on the running back as much or more as they have in the past.
With the crew he has to throw to, Nicholson sees nothing but good times ahead.
“We definitely have a ton of talent,” Nicholson said, rattling off the names of brothers Britt and Brandon Davis, as well as Marcus Perez and Marcus Lewis. “But offensively, we’re going to be the Huskies. We run the ball, and that’s been successful for us.”
Nicholson and Novak each allude to “subtle changes” in the offense, but not so different that the run-pass ratio fluctuates much from the 60-40 standard of recent years.
It should be noted that Horvath threw for nearly 4,000 yards the last two seasons, even as Garrett Wolfe was running for about 3,500. Nicholson will get his chance in the spotlight. As was the case at Brother Rice, it’s up to him to make something of it.
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