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August 26, 2003

Going after 'Burner'
Terps Must Focus on Stopping N. Illnois' Turner

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer


Northern Illinois tailback Michael Turner rushed for 1,915 yads last year, a figure outdone only by Penn State's Larry Johnson. Turner is 6 feet, 228 pounds, with thick legs that kick high in the air when he runs. One coach in the Mid-American Conference said his team needed 15 players to stop him. Another said he has to hold his breath every time Turner gets the ball.

Yet somehow, Northern Illinois Coach Joe Novak was worried about Turner's impact on the Huskies this fall.

"I didn't know how our team would handle it all," Novak said.

Welcome to hype, DeKalb, Ill., style. There are "Turner the Burner" T-shirts. "Turner the Burner" notebooks have been distributed to the national media. There is a Michael Turner Web site---www.turnertheburner.com. There is a buzz about the Huskies tailback that extends beyond DeKalb, beyond the MAC.

"He's a big-time back," said Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen, whose Terrapins open the season at Northern Illinois. "He'll play on Sundays."

In this case, Turner will play Thursday night, when the 15th-ranked Terrapins come to town. The T-shirts and Web site are a good way for Northern Illinois' program to gain some recognition. Turner's potential is significant, but so is the fanfare surrounding him coming into the season.

"He's a real likeable kid," Novak said. "He's got a low-key ego, and he's really having fun with this. But you worry: When one guy's getting all the attention, the other 104 can resent that."

However, Novak said, the Huskies seemed to have handled it superbly.

"They're fine with it," Turner said. "They tease me about the Heisman and all the rest of it. But they know we have a job to do."

The Huskies' job is doable, and anyone thinking they'll be a cakewalk for the Terrapins might want to look at their roster and consider some recent results. "We better not be thinking that way," Friedgen said.

In a game thee years ago, Northern Illinois was tied with Auburn in the fourth quarter before letting the game get out of hand. In 2001, the Huskies were throwing into the end zone in the final seconds, desperatel trying to beat eventual Big Ten champion Illinois, only to lose 17-12. Last season, they opened by beating Wake Forest in overtime, and two weeks later lost at Wisconsin by a field goal.

Now, Novak has his best team since he arrived in 1996.

"From where we were five years ago, anything's better," said Novak, whose first two teams went 1-21. "But this is our best team, certainly. We've got a lot of kids back, but more importantly, they're good players that have played a lot of football."

And they're all over the field. Middle linebacker Nick Duffy averaged better than 10 tackles per game last season. The Huskies' offensive tackles, senior Jake VerStraete and junior Mark Orszula, are 6-7, 314 pounds and 6-7, 323 pounds, respectively. Quarterback Josh Haldi threw just two interceptions in his final eight games last season.

"I know we've got other guys," Turner said. "We're a team, and that's how we're going to win."

Yet Turner is the undisputed center of it all. He was lightly recruited out of North Chicago High, and though he has always had dreams of playing in the NFL, he began to get worried in his senior year.

"I didn't know what would happen," Turner said. "I had people around me supporting me and everything. They knew I was good. I had talent. I wanted to get to the Big Ten. That's where I wanted to play. That's what I watched on TV growing up. Northern? I'd never seen them on TV."

But in the end, the Huskies were the only school to offer Turner a scholarship.

"I looked at five films to watch him make two runs," Novak said. "A lot of games, you just didn't see much from him. Those two runs, though, you could tell me he might have something. But we took him on a chance. I remember saying, 'he's going to be great or he's going to be a bust.'"

He has been great. Only 12 players in Division 1-A history have rushed for more yards in a single season than Turner did last year. He scored 19 touchdowns and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. He rushed for more than 200 yards five times in 2003, including an absurd 282 against Western Illinois.

This seaosn, the rest of the nation might notice. Not only do the Huskies host the Terrapins, but they play at Alabama and then host Iowa State. They are favored to win the MAC, which would mean taking the crown from perennial champ Marshall.

"This year's going to be different," Turner said. "I'm coming in as the guy people are focused on, and the team's depending on me a lot to help them get to where we're trying to go. All the talk about awards is fine. But that's the main thing: getting to where we want to go."









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