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Miami faces stiff challenge against ‘best defense in the league’

The Miami RedHawks still will try to keep alive their hopes of qualifying for a bowl game Wednesday night at Northern Illinois.

Miami goes into the 8 p.m. game at DeKalb, Ill., 4-6 overall and needing two wins to reach the six normally required by the NCAA of teams going to a bowl game. An upset of NIU (7-3, 6-0) and home win over Ball State in the regular-season finale on Nov. 20 would satisfy the minimum requirements for a second bowl berth in three seasons.

»RELATED: What you need to know about tonight’s game

Nobody was discernibly talking about bowl berths around the Miami program. The RedHawks were focused on figuring out how to attack a Huskie team that went into the week leading the MAC in rushing defense, allowing 109.6 yards per game, and scoring defense, allowing an average of 21.0 points per game. NIU ranked third in total defense, allowing an average of 354.8 yards per game.

“Defensively, in my opinion, they are the best defense in this league by a wide margin,” fifth-year Miami coach Chuck Martin said. “I don’t know who to compare them to because I don’t think statistically there’s any comparison. They are incredibly physical, fast, defend the run and defend the pass. It doesn’t matter who they play.”

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Junior linebacker Antonio Jones-Daves leads the Huskies in tackles, but junior defensive Sutton Smith is the heart of the NIU defense. The former running back is tied for the MAC lead with nine sacks and leads the conference with 17 tackles for losses, costing opponents 77 yards. He blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in the Huskies’38-15 win over Toledo on Wednesday, which extended their winning streak to six games. Smith also forced a fumble during a sack in the game.

»LOOKING BACK: RedHawks snap losing streak against rival Ohio

“He’s a tremendous player,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said after the game, according to the NIU athletics website. “He’s a guy you have to pick and choose your spots when you want to chip on him. You pick and choose spots when you want to slide the protection to him, to commit two guys to him the entire game I think that’s unrealistic. You have to pick and choose your spots and hats off to him.”

Sophomore defensive tackle Jack Heflin also enjoyed a breakout game against the Rockets with seven tackles, including 2-1/2 sacks.

The Huskies’ running game exploded against the Rockets with 296 team rushing yards. Sophomore running back Tre Harbison led the game with 139 yards on 21 carries and went into the week ranked second in the MAC with an average of 80.4 rushing yards per game. Junior running back Marcus Jones also surpassed the 100-yard mark with 103 yards on 12 carries and a touchdown, but NIU still was 11thin the 12-team MAC with averages of 21.1 points and 318.5 yards of total offense per game.

“We have to be very disciplined in the box, but we have to remember that they’re a hit-and-run team,” junior cornerback Zedrick Raymond said. “They like to try to pop it over your head.”

“Their offense is similar to Ohio,” Martin said. “They depend on the run game. Actually, it’s very similar to our offense in terms of structure and even some of the plays. They’re doing what they’ve always done.”

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