(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kansas began the 2011 season in impressive fashion last Saturday, beating McNeese State, 42-24, while collecting 301 rushing yards, three sacks, and holding the Cowboys to just three points in the first half.
But McNeese State was a FCS foe who even gave KU problems with its
passing game (325 yards). Now a week later, the Jayhawks face a much
tougher opponent with Northern Illinois coming to Memorial Stadium for
a 6:10 p.m. (CT) kickoff today on Fox College Sports.
While NIU (from the Mid-American Conference) isn’t a BCS school, the
Huskies are the real deal. Northern Illinois blitzed Army, 49-26, last
Saturday while amassing 509 yards of total offense. NIU, which led 49-6
at the end of the third quarter, is coming off an 11-3 season,
including a 40-17 victory over Fresno State in the Humanitarian Bowl.
With a road game against Georgia Tech on Sept. 17 and a fierce Big 12
schedule ahead, this game against NIU is critical for Kansas, which is
actually a 41/2-point underdog despite playing at home.
KU coach Turner Gill has been stressing “focus” this week as the
Jayhawks look to win consecutive games for the first time under the
second-year head man.
“We have to be a lot more focused and disciplined on a lot more smaller
details defensively, offensively and special teams because (they) have
an experienced football team and they play a lot of good football,”
“I know we’re going to have to play very, very well.”
NIU returns eight starters on offense and three on defense. The
Huskies’ big offensive weapon is senior quarterback Chandler Harnish,
one of the greatest signal callers in school history who was the 2010
MAC Player of the Year. He completed 15-of-24 passes for 224 yards and
five touchdowns against Army.
Harnish broke a 47-year-old school record last season with 3,366 yards
of total offense, and is now threatening NIU career records for
touchdown passes, passing yards and completions.
“He can throw the football, and he can run,” Gill said. “He’s played a
lot of football. I think he has more than 30 starts.”
The Jayhawks know they’ll have to contain him.
“A guy with that kind of experience you have to disguise a lot of
things to him, because he can weed out your defense very easily,”
junior cornerback Greg Brown said. “We have to try to show a lot of
different blitz formations, and disguise some of our coverages. We have
to throw a lot of different things at him, and keep his mind moving.”
KU also has to stop NIU’s running game. The Huskies rushed for 289
yards against Army, including 138 yards in just 14 carries by senior
While NIU’s defense may be a question mark, Huskies’ head coach Dave
Doeren has a past history of strong defensive teams. Doeren, who served
as an assistant coach at KU under Mark Mangino from 2002-05, spent the
last five seasons as an assistant at Wisconsin (his first two years as
co-defensive coordinator, linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator
before adding defensive coordinator to his duties his final two years),
where his defenses were consistently ranked in the top-25 nationally.
Gill called Doeren “an outstanding head coach” who’s “well-respected in
the coaching profession.”
Besides the general theme of focus, Gill said the keys to the game are
being plus-two in turnover margin, a 2-to-1 ratio of big plays of 20
yards or more, and winning the special teams in four or more phases.
KU is looking to build on its success against McNeese State in Week
Two, where teams usually show their greatest improvement.
“We want to improve on everything,” sophomore quarterback Jordan Webb
said. “We want to run the ball better and throw the ball better, but we
felt we had a great Week One, and if we can come and improve on the
things we need to, we’re going to have a good Week Two."
The Jayhawks are primed for the challenge today and hope to gain some
respect and prove the oddsmakers wrong by showing that Kansas is for
real this season.
“This whole program has always had a chip on our shoulder. It’s just
coal on fire,” senior linebacker Steven Johnson said about NIU being
favored. “We’re going to try and build a game plan to be able to stop
KU stops them in a thriller, 27-24.