In partnership with Mid-Major Madness (MMM), SBN's haven for non-BCS coverage, we present to you the top five match-ups between Big Ten and Mid-Major football teams. At number three comes Saturday's showdown between Wisconsin and Northern Illinois.
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The favored Badgers have played musical chairs with their starters, while Northern Illinois will comes out inexperienced but featuring a star quarterback. Can the Big Ten's 3rd best program of the last 10 years make a run this year? Will Student Body Sweep Right crush the Huskies?
MMM: When Jerry Kill took over the NIU football program after the 2007 season it looked as if he was going to have to spend at least a few seasons rebuilding the team. After the Huskies finished with an abysmal 2-10 record in 2007, Kill’s team made surprising progress in 2008 with a .500 regular season winning percentage and an invitation to the Independence Bowl. Kill looks to continue with his rebuilding efforts as he enters his 2nd year as head coach of the Huskies.
However, 2009 might be a bit more difficult as he loses 20 seniors from last years roster including the MAC MVP and the 16th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Larry English. Along with English, the Huskies lost 5 receivers that accounted for 83% of the teams catches. The team will need someone from the incoming freshman class to step up and become a playmaker.
With such a young and inexperienced team it will be very difficult to go into Madison, one of college footballs biggest stages, and come out with the victory against the Badgers.
TRE: What in the world happened in Madison? The entire state will be watching the Badger's backfield, as heralded RB John Clay has been passed on the depth chart by Zach Brown and preseason starting QB Dustin Sherer has been replaced by Scott Tolzien and frosh Curt Phillips. Clay will play big minutes, but the concept is clear - Coach Bielema is winning at all costs and doesn't give a damn if that means changing leaders one week before the season.
Huskies Red Zone Offense vs. Badgers Defense
MMM: In 2008, the Huskies seemed to always have found a way to screw up every possession in which they were within the coveted boundaries of the Red Zone. Quarterback Chandler Harnish failed in attempt after attempt, causing Kill to rely on his kicker Mike Salerno to put points on the board. Kill has worked to address the issue during camp and feels confident in his QB, although they still lack the go-to guy that they can rely on to put 6 points on the board.
Harnish is unquestionably their best shot at an X-factor , with the quick feet necessary to pick up yardage on the ground. A lot of Harnish’s struggles in 2008 was due to his inexperience, but this year he really needs to show the coaching staff that he can step up and make the big plays and what better way to do so than against then against a Big Ten powerhouse. With such a young supporting cast it will be very interesting to see if Harnish has what it takes to put points on the board and take some stress off Salerno.
TRE: It looks like MMM has been doing his research. The Huskies run game has been potent for years and matches up extremely well with Wisconsin's depleted defensive line. The Badgers lost DE's Mike Newkirk and Matt Shaughnessy to graduation, making it their most vulnerable defensive position. If Northern Illinois makes it inside the 20, they should pound the rock with quarterback runs (Harnish is almost 220 lbs) and draws to smallish playmaker Me'Co Brown.
MMM: As mentioned earlier, this is NIU head coach Jerry Kill’s second season and although he did a tremendous job at turning the team around in 2008, he needs to prove that last year wasn’t just some aberration. Last year he had a team with a mix of not only the players he recruited, but also the players that signed on to play under former head coach Joe Novak. Now that Kill has 24 of his own recruits coming in can really showcase his coaching ability. There is no question that they will be a very young and inexperienced team but they are talented nonetheless.
Kill will be in the spotlight week one against the Badgers in easily one of NIU’s biggest games of the season. If the Huskies can go in and steal the win, it will not only start the season off on the right track but also show NIU boosters and fans that Kill is the real deal.
TRE: The Wisconsin preseason preview is littered with cliches. Bielema is always on the " hot seat" and every OOC game is a "must win." But much of the time, cliches exist to wipe out the need for long, complicated explanations. And in Madison, these overused cliches might ring true. The Wisconsin "system," which consists of a strong run game, hard-hitting defense, and the ability to draw other teams into slugfests, didn't work so well last year. Bielema can take steps to prove '08 was an aberration with a thumping of the Huskies.
MMM: The Badgers face another quarterback decision coming into the 2009 season. It seems that the past three years the Badgers have face the same issue over and over again, which is probably the main reason behind their mediocre play. Regardless, the Badgers have veteran players that the Huskies seem to lack. The youthfulness of the Huskies will be a major issue and will most definitely lead to careless turnovers and blown coverages. Wisconsin 31, Northern Illinois 17.
TRE: Preparation is the keyword for the Badgers. They were caught unprepared against numerous opponents (Cal Poly, Florida State, Iowa) in 2008. Bielema has had the entire off-season to put together some kind of gameplan and one has to believe he'll have the Badgers jacked up for Redemption Year '09. Right? Wisconsin 34, Northern Illinois 20.