Due to travel schedules and general "life" neither PJS or myself will have the opportunity to really dig into the Northern Illinois Huskies and how your Golden Gophers will match up with them. For that I apologize.
But I don't want to leave you completely hanging so here is a fairly brief preview and what I expect you will see.
General NIU Thoughts
To star with I want to point out that NIU will be starting four kids from Minnesota in tomorrow night's game.
#85 - WR - Matt Simon from Farmington (pictured) is their most dangerous receiving threat and needs to be a key for the Gopher defense. All-MAC second team in 2007 and is a potential All-MAC selection in 2008.
#60 - OT - Jon Brost from Maple Grove is another potential All-MAC lineman.
#62 - OT - Trevor Olson from Richfield is the other bookend tackle.
- #26 - LB - Cory Hanson from DeLaSalle will be the lone defensive starter hailing from our great state.
The Huskies return a ton of starters and are looking to improve on their 2-10 season last year. The preseason consensus slots the Huskies to finish 5th in the MAC West Division. They are playing their first season with a new head coach, Jerry Kill and should be better but at the same time very beatable for the Gophers.
Mike from Red and Black Attack was kind enough to give me a few quick thoughts on the Huskies. Here are his answers to a few of my penetrating questions.
1. There has been a little quarterback competition this summer. Disney is looking for the rights to this epic battle between the veteran starter and the talented young freshman. In the movie everyone will be a winner but in reality who wins?
This is the biggest mystery on the team. Danny Nicholson's shoulder gets worn out after he throws a lot in practice, as he is slow to recover from off-season shoulder surgery, but Kill says that he has thrown in the last 3 practices. Kill is not going to rotate QBs, but there may be some situations where Harnish may step in for Nicholson or vice versa. We may see some of 3rd stringer DeMarcus Grady. Both Harnish and Grady offer a more mobile option at quarterback.
2. There are four starters who played their high school ball in Minnesota (Simon, Brost, Olson and Hanson). I have nightmares of former MN kids tearing apart the home team that didn't recruit them. Who should I fear the most?
Simon Says was THE most consistent player on our offense last year and is very underrated, but somebody's just got to get him the ball. Both our tackle spots are filled by men from the Land of Lakes, so watch for our RBs running outside or QB rollouts. The big guys may have an extra chip on their shoulder. Redshirt Freshman Trevor Olson came out of nowhere to take the starting spot, while Brost is our best O-Lineman. Cory Hanson should be feared because he held off a ridiculous amount of players to hold on to his starting spot on the Weakside this year. He has the speed to succeed in Kill's system.
3. I am a Big Ten Snob and I don't bother to pay attention to the lowly MAC. So I guess NIU has a DE who is pretty good. Tell me about him and why I should know his name.
Oh you must be talking about Larry English. There's not too much to say about the reigning MAC MVP other than that he's a freak of nature and eats offensive tackles alive. When Kill started camp, the announcement was that nobody had a starting spot on this team other than the people-eating LE who plays the right-end spot. He is accompanied by my favorite player DE Craig Rusch, switched over from DT, who is also a beast and could help English's production out even more, which is scary to think about.
4. In 2007 both of our favorite teams sucked. The Huskies managed to double the Gopher win total by claiming two victories. What makes you think that NIU has improved more than Minnesota has improved and the Huskies will leave Minneapolis with a win?
I think one thing that helped Kill with the transition to coaching this team was the fact that he actually beat us last year as coach of the FCS SIU Salukis. Looking at stats, Both our turnover ratios were horrible (NIU -17 & Minn -15), so I expect improvement all-around in holding on to the ball. If you look at close losses by a TD or less, we're also close (NIU - 5, Minn - 6).
The thing that really sets NIU apart though is that we basically return all of our starters on each side of the ball, so we'll have a lot of motivation to put last year really far behind of us. Another thing to look at is the fact that the amount of injuries we went through last year was inconceivable. We had so many walking wounded last year, it was impossible to stay consistent and productive.
One thing that everybody is overlooking is the strength of our running game. We've had a sub-par QB situation ever since 2005, but you just have to look and see Wolfe in the backfield and figure out how we were so productive. We have extremely good RB depth and health and there are some superstars just waiting to bust out this year. Tomorrow should be a huge test for both teams and I can't wait to watch the game!
When Northern Illinois has the ball...
The quarterback position has been a competition in spring practice and August camp. I'm going to assume that redshirt freshman Chandler Harnish has beaten the incumbent senior Dan Nicholson who started nine games for the Huskies in 2007. You read a few thoughts on Harnish from Mike above and that is more than I know about him. Harnish did start in the team's scrimmage this August, but things certainly could have changed since then.
One knock I have read on Harnish is his lack of accuracy. That gives me hope that on the road we can rattle him a little bit and force some quick turnovers to get the ball rolling in our favor.
The Huskies primary offensive threat is JR-Justin Anderson. This is the guy we have to stop. Everybody remembers how bad our pass defense was a year ago but don't forget about our ineptitude against the run. Anderson is probably the best RB we will face in the non-conference portion of the schedule so this will be a good test for our front seven.
In the air keep an eye on #85 Matt Simon. As mentioned above he is a Minnesota kid and the primary receiving threat for NIU.
When Minnesota has the ball...
Northern Illinois' best player is RE Larry English. He is a returning All-MAC first teamer and is clearly the best defensive player in a Huskie uniform. For his career English has 23.5 sacks and 40 tackles for losses. The knock on English is that he did not put up impressive numbers against the more talented teams on NIU's schedule.
- vs. Iowa - 2 tackles
- vs. Wisconsin - 2 tackes, 1 TFL
- vs. Navy - 1 tackle
I'm trying to downplay his ability as he rack up 5 sacks against Idaho, meaning he spread out the remaining 5.5 over 11 other games. Regardless, he needs to be stopped and this a chance for the line to show they will not be a weak link. Keep your eye on English (#51) throughout the game.
The rest of the defense seems to be solid and experienced. If you are looking for another match up to watch I'd keep an eye on their secondary vs. our young receivers. The secondary is full of seniors and should be a nice test for the young Gopher receivers.
What to expect
I see this is as an absolute must win for the Gophers. This is at home against a team that should finish near the bottom of the MAC. If Brewster wants to show that his team has made any improvements he as to win this and he was to win comfortably.
The most interesting thing for me will be to see what kind of adjustments are made at halftime. If the game is close or we are behind can we make adjustments to take advantage of mismatches in the second half? If we are winning can we anticipate their adjustments and continue to roll in the second half?
The offense comes out running the ball and is effective while the passing game struggles early. But second half the passing game starts clicking and points start to add up.
On defense I think we come out fired up and force a three-and-out to start the game. We rattle their QB, force a couple turnovers but eventually the yards start to pile up as this is not yet a dominant defense and you should expect to see us give up yards and first downs.
Based on an prolific second half and a couple key defensive interceptions the Gophers win by double digits.
Minnesota - 38
Northern Illinois - 27
PJS officially predicts a Gopher win as well. He is less optimistic (I think this may be a pattern on our part).
Minnesota - 31
Northern Illinois - 28
Be sure to check back here during the game for an open thread to share your thoughts, frustrations, elations or whatever you need to get off your chest.