With two games into the Wisconsin football season, there is hardly anything to gripe about.
After defeating UNLV and Oregon State by a combined score of 86-17, Wisconsin arrived in 2011 as advertised, confidently looking like a team bound for a BCS bowl game.
But that still won’t stop some people from raising the upset alert level for Wisconsin’s next game against Northern Illinois at Soldier Field — which can sometimes be confused for an extra-terrestrial airport.
Indeed, there are some zesty ingredients of this game that do cook up an aroma of upset. Former UW defensive coordinator Dave Doeren is now, of course, in his first year as head coach for the Huskies — so he knows a thing or two about the Badgers. Not to mention NIU is trying to build off a strong 11-3 season a year ago that featured a Humanitarian Bowl victory.
The Huskies also do a lot of recruiting in Wisconsin, where the Badgers dominate. Anyone think the phrase “Badger rejects” might accelerate NIU’s drive in this game?
The condition of Soldier Field’s playing surface, which is said to be the worst in the National Football League, is also a concern, although that could negatively affect Northern Illinois, as well.
I don’t see an upset occurring in Chicago; more like the Huskies hang around for two or three quarters until the Badgers hit light-speed, if not a route from the get-go.
But the difference between the Huskies hanging around and the Badgers ripping them apart from the beginning resides in Wisconsin’s secondary. Northern Illinois’ passing game presents a much tougher test than the Wisconsin secondary saw against UNLV and Oregon State, and for Wisconsin to avoid a tricky affair, the last line of defense will have to maneuver the following quandary.
Forget Doeren’s knowledge of UW for a moment and think about the on-field ballistics here. Since Chris Ash’s arrival, Wisconsin’s secondary has seen improvement throughout last year, the offseason and 2011’s first two games. Cornerback Antonio Fenelus has been rock-solid in coverage while safeties Aaron Henry and Shelton Johnson have let little by them, as well.
Injured cornerback Devin Smith’s season is now in jeopardy, according to head coach Bret Bielema, after hurting his left ankle against OSU. His replacement, Marcus Cromartie, had a terrific fall camp and played excellently against Oregon State.
Wisconsin has been impressive, but the Badgers have faced some milquetoast air attacks so far this year. UNLV’s Caleb Herring started his first collegiate game against UW in the opener and OSU rotated two subpar quarterbacks in and out of the action last weekend. Clearly, neither team boasted stability or a sense of established confidence.
Wisconsin has allowed just over 200 passing yards per game and has not forced any turnovers over those two games. Mixed with the fact that UW’s secondary was one of the weaker components of last year’s Rose Bowl run, I’d say there’s still something to prove.
The Huskies, on the other hand, bring in a strong leader in fifth-year senior quarterback Chandler Harnish, who started nine games as a freshman and has not given up the job since.
One of the better quarterbacks in the Mid-American Conference, Harnish has completed 75 percent of his passes this year en route to throwing for 510 yards and seven touchdowns against the likes of Army and Kansas.
And he’s seen Wisconsin before. As a redshirt sophomore in 2009, Harnish completed 15 of 24 attempts for 174 yards in a late push at Camp Randall that ultimately ended in a 28-20 loss. With his ability to run the ball (166 yards, four touchdowns), Harnish is what gets the Huskies’ offense moving.
Northern Illinois led the MAC in scoring (38 points per game) and total yards (450 yards per) last season and has hardly come down from that summit this year, averaging a conference-best 45.5 points and 521.5 yards per game, just seven yards out from tops in the conference.
Fortunately for UW, Harnish’s targets don’t have much height (four of his six most-targeted players are below 6-foot), though this still remains by far the best quarterback and passing game the Badgers will see until Taylor Martinez and his Cornhuskers visit Madison.
Despite some visible offseason rust against UNLV, UW’s front seven charged forward in Week 2. They sacked quarterbacks, forced fumbles and improved tackling.
But there’s still a little more that needs to be seen from the secondary. For Wisconsin to win in style like they have the past two weeks and impress the voters even more, it will be on the defensive backfield and their date with Harnish’s passing game.
It’s not too daunting of a task, as it’s been thumbs up for the Badger DB’s so far this season. But for a group that’s been progressing well for over a year now and has already taken a blow in health, shutting down an experienced and knowledgeable opponent can certainly boost confidence and launch the group into bigger success in the future.