The Wisconsin Badgers will follow the “Dave Doeren-gon Trail” this weekend and head southeast to Chicago to face the 2010 MAC runner-up Northern Illinois at Soldier Field.
Doeren, in his first season as NIU Head Coach, is a former Badgers defensive assistant and coordinator who took the job shortly before the Badgers headed west to play TCU in the Rose Bowl last year. Doeren stayed on to coach his team in the “Grand Daddy of Them All” and will see several familiar faces again this Saturday.
The Badgers haven’t played the Huskies since the 2009 opener in which the Badgers held on to win 28-20 in Madison. That game was former quarterback Scott Tolzien’s first career start and included an opening play bomb to Isaac Anderson for an 80-yard touchdown. The Badgers took a 28-6 lead into the fourth quarter only to allow Chandler Harnish to lead two long scoring drives to make it a one-score game before the Badgers' defense was ultimately able to halt the Huskies.
Harnish is back and, frankly, better than ever. In 2010, he was the MAC Player of the Year and the MVP in the Humanitarian Bowl where NIU beat Fresno State. In 2011, he’s No. 10 in the nation in total offense, averaging 339.5 yards per game.
The Huskies' signal caller nearly led an upset of Kansas last week after blowing out Army in the opener. With 510 yards through the air and 169 on the ground (with 11 total touchdowns) Harnish can beat you in a couple of different ways. Remind you of anybody? In short, he’s likely the best signal-caller the Badgers will face all season, and if anyone knows how to beat the Badgers defense, Doeren is probably that man.
The Huskies' ground attack is buoyed by senior Jasmin Hopkins (27 carries, 185 yards, 6.9 per carry) who, at 5’9” and 172 lbs, is likely the smallest back the Badgers will look to wrap up this fall. Jamal Womble, a junior, may be the biggest. At 6’0" and 246 lbs, Womble is a Clay-clone, at least in terms of size.
Harnish is spreading the ball around—and quite effectively, I might add—with a 75 percent completion percentage. The pass catchers to watch are red-shirt senior Nathan Palmer and junior Martel Moore. The two true receivers have 19 catches and nearly 200 yards between them. The Huskies also like to use tailback/receiver Akeem Daniels, a sophomore from Kissimmee, FL, out of the backfield on screens and short passes. Daniels has four carries and six catches this season.
It is worth noting that the Huskies sophomore kicker, Mathew Sims, is 13/13 on PATs but has not attempted a field goal this season.
Defensively, the Huskies have yet to “let the dogs out.” They’ve surrendered 943 yards in two games (387 passing, 556 rushing). One interception marks the lone turnover forced by the Huskies defense. The man to watch is safety Tommy Davis, a red-shirt junior who will do his best Jim Leonhard impression on Saturday. He’s a sure tackler and returns kicks and punts as wel
Keys to the game:
Offense: Run the ball and control the clock. Also, it’s always best not to let a team like NIU hang around and gain confidence throughout the game. The Badgers would be best served getting off to a fast start and imposing their will (and girth) on the undersized Huskies.
Defense: Tackle. There is no doubt Harnish is going to complete a ton of passes. The challenge for Badger linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties is to prevent big plays by tackling the ball-carrier.
Intangibles: Wisconsin Head Coach Bret Bielema will change his signals this week to throw-off any scent of familiarity Dave Doeren may have with Wisconsin’s schemes. Will they work? Nobody knows quite yet.
Offense: Expect the unexpected. Defensively, the Badgers have been very vanilla in their two weeks of action. New defensive coordinator Chris Ash has seldom blitzed or used wrinkles in his scheme.; that will change this week. It will be up to Harnish and the offensive line to be ready when the Badgers strike.
Defense: Pray? Seriously, I’m not sure what NIU can do to combat the Badgers distinct size, talent, and versatility advantages. Oregon State did a nice job limiting the UW ground game but Montee Ball still had over 100 yards rushing.
Intangibles: Whenever an upset occurs, there is almost always a big play in special teams that buoys the underdog. The Badgers have been excellent on special teams so far, but that’s not to say they are impervious to giving up a big play in the “other” phase of the game.
Final word: NIU beat Big Ten teams in the previous two seasons. The Huskies finished off Purdue in 2009 and Minnesota in 2010.