Opponent Preview — Game Three: Northern Illinois


It’s not too often MAC schools get to watch their schools play with that little number next to their name on the scoreboard. It’s something fans of successful teams tend to take for granted, something that tends to mark failure for the programs who rule the college sports landscape. Prior to the 2010 season, the Northern Illinois football team only received that honor once in their 44 years of Division I football.

That was 2003, a season which saw the Huskies swiftly drop from the 12th slot in the rankings after falling to conference foe Bowling Green State, then ranked 23rd in the country. With fewer bowl slots available back in 2003, losing the MAC West to Bowling Green meant losing the guaranteed MAC spot in the Motor City Bowl (the other spot went to Ben Roethlisberger’s Miami of Ohio team, which went undefeated in the MAC East — it was a huge year for the conference), and as such even at 10-2, the Huskies didn’t go bowling in 2003.

2010 saw no such collapse in the conference season. Behind star quarterback Chandler Harnish (21 passing touchdowns, seven rushing) and running back Chad Spann (1388 rushing yards, 22 touchdowns, 5.0 yards per carry), the Huskies rolled up 38 points per game and sprinted to the top of the MAC standings, even earning the #24 spot in the AP rankings in the second-to-last week of the season before dropping the MAC Championship to a mediocre Miami of Ohio team. Still, the Huskies earned a shot at a bowl. They would take full advantage of the second chance, obliterating Fresno State by a score of 40-17 on the blue turf of Boise State in the Humanitarian Bowl.

Although Spann has graduated, last seen trying to make the Indianapolis Colts as an undrafted free agent, Harnish is still around, and at least through two games, so is the high-octane offense. Harnish has already accounted for 11 touchdowns, rushed for 169 yards on only 22 carries, and thrown for 510 yards on 52 passes. Over 12 games, that’s a 3,000 yard passing season, a 1,000 yard rushing season, and 66 touchdowns. Sure, it came against Army and a weak Kansas team, but still. This Harnish kid can play some football. He has a bit of help, too — running back Jasmin (not a typo) Hopkins has 185 yards (6.9 per rush) and a touchdown so far; receiver Nathan Palmer has 10 catches for 105 yards and a touchdown.

As a result, we could be looking at a shootout at Soldier Field, a place known for the historically tough defenses of the Chicago Bears. The NIU defense simply couldn’t stop the Kansas offense last week, allowing 534 yards on 90 plays over the course of a 45-42 loss in Lawrence. Specifically, the Huskies were gashed in the passing game, as Kansas quarterback Jordan Webb finished 21-for-30 with 281 yards and three scoring passes, similar to what he was on pace to do had he played the full game agaisnt McNeese State in week one. Webb has likely taken a step forward in his sophomore year, but not such that he would go from a 56% completion percentage and more interceptions than touchdowns (eight versus seven) to the star he looked against NIU.

The Badgers and the Huskies may actually have similarly potent offenses. Harnish commands an attack which should rank in the top 15 of points per game once again. I would take the Badgers’ combination of Russell Wilson, Montee Ball, James White and crew over the largely one-man show that is Harnish’s Huskies, but the Huskies can light up the scoreboard and will likely put some points up at Soldier Field. But if Kansas’s weak offense — all of 17.1 points per game in 2010 — could put up 45 against the Huskies, don’t be surprised if the Badgers put together another all-world performance on the offensive side of the ball.

The Huskies have the talent on hand to keep this game interesting, unlike the first two tilts of 2011. The point spread is 17.5, and the Badgers could see a closer game if the offense sputters at the start like it did against Oregon State, and they will allow some points, likely earlier than later. Still, the Badgers are clear favorites and clearly outclass this Northern Illinois team. For another week, the question largely isn’t whether or not the Badgers can win, but instead how much the final margin of victory will be.