The Northern Illinois Huskies are confident they can defeat Illinois Saturday. They have frequently defeated Big 10 foes and are an established program with much recent success. They have a large contingent of athletes from the state of Illinois eager to claim state superiority. And more than anything else they want to win for their coach, who has been hospitalized this week.
Coach Jerry Kill's illness has not been reported, but he was hospitalized much of the week. There is no doubt his players will wish to dedicate the game to him even though it is now reported he will prowl the sidelines Saturday. But as Illinois coach Ron Zook attests, Kill's health is a bigger concern than the outcome of a game.
"First off I'd like to say that my thoughts and prayers go out to Coach Kill. He is a great football coach, and he is what football is all about. I hope and pray that everything works out and that he is ok. What it really does is put this game in perspective."
If Kill can't make it, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will take over. The NIU staff is experienced and has been together for awhile, so they shouldn't miss a beat in Kill's absence. And they still have a dynamic team that presents a huge challenge for the Illini according to Zook.
"Make no mistake, with this football team coming this week we have to be ready to play. They beat Purdue last year and then Purdue beat us. I think our guys understand that it is going to be important that we go out there ready to play. They are a lot like a Big Ten team. They are physical and big."
Just like many Big 10 teams, they have a powerful offense that will pound you all day if you can't slow them up. Chad Spann is an extremely talented back known for breaking tackles. And quarterback Chandler Harnish ran the zone read option to perfection last week.
"Anytime you have a running quarterback it's a concern," Zook understates. "There is no question that the defense will be tested. The running back's a good player and the quarterback is one of those players that can get on the corner and run. He is a good football player, and a good runner. He throws the ball extremely well."
Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning respects the NIU offense and is especially impressed with Spann.
"You have to account for him obviously. They use a zone read scheme. The running back is really a dynamic player. We saw him break through a ton of tackles. Their offensive line is big and experienced and good."
Koenning is deeply concerned this week, not just with the Huskies but with his own players. They must have a peak performance to win, but their practice this week has not always pleased their boss.
"This team we're gonna have to prepare for with a stingier mindset than we have right now. We've got to find something inside of us to get up and play another game as fast as we can play. They've got a lot to play for, and I think our guys do too if we can get them to understand that."
Some have suggested the Illini defense has exceeded expectations. But not in Koenning's mind. He preferred to concentrate on the Huskies all week, but with all the injuries and position switches, part of the practice week has been devoted to basic instruction.
"We're trying to focus on us right now. That's got our plate pretty full. Obviously, we need to be assignment responsible for Northern Illinois, but we need to work on us."
Outside linebacker coach Ron West works with two positions that will be on the firing line on any outside option.
"We've got to read our keys and be disciplined. When you see a zone read team, you've got to be able to be disciplined and play with square shoulders. Somebody's got to take the dive, and somebody's got to take the quarterback. We've got to be focused."
Outside linebacker Nathan Bussey provided his impression of the NIU offense.
"They want to come and try to run the power and truck plays, and the quarterback is definitely gonna try to run. He's a mobile quarterback. The running game is really gonna be a major factor in their offensive scheme, and stopping the run will be a major factor in our defensive scheme. We look forward to any challenge that comes our way."
Safety Tavon Wilson spoke along similar lines.
"They've got a pretty good rushing attack. I think we've got a pretty good run-stopping defense, so it will be a good challenge for everyone to see where our tackling is really at and how good we really are."
Zook says the Huskie defense is tough also.
"They're going to line up and pack the box. They're like a Big Ten team, they really are. They're going to get their 8th guy in the box, I don't think there's any question. They're going to try to stop the run and try to force you to throw the football.
"They're tough. Both defensive ends are good, I think three of the four down lineman are seniors. One corner and one safety are really impressive. They're tough guys, they're going to play tough and hard. The linebackers are very solid. They're a very well coached football team."
Quarterback coach Jeff Brohm provides a rundown of the NIU defense.
"They're a base four man front. They play a lot of bend-but-don't-break defense, keep everything underneath them and try to not give up the big play. They're a very sound defense. They play extremely hard. And they've played big games before. They've won bowl games, so they've been there before, they know how to do it. They're well coached.
"So we've got to be patient but find ways to get big plays and make the series or drive so it doesn't have to be a 10 play drive. This last game, we were able to hit a couple big shots, and that helps the overall success rate of your offense."
Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase knows NIU will try to take away the Illini running game and force him to pass. He doesn't shy away from the challenge.
"Yeah, I don't see why not. With what Mikel (Leshoure) and Jason (Ford) are able to do, even last year, when people played Illinois they put a lot of guys in the box. As a quarterback, that's something that you like. You know you're gonna have one-on-ones, so it's basically like throwing one-on-ones in the summer. It's something that I look forward to."
Receiver A.J. Jenkins is one of the beneficiaries of one-on-one coverage. He believes no cornerback can beat him without help. So he doesn't mind the defensive mentality.
"They'll try to pack the box and scare Nathan since he's a freshman. I guess they don't believe in his arm."
Scheelhaase hit the open man against Southern Illinois last week, and Jenkins caught five passes for 112 yards. But they can't rest on their laurels with Paul Petrino as offensive coordinator.
"If you know Coach Petrino, you can't rest," Jenkins reminds. "There's no such thing. He's a very intense guy. Even in the practice Monday everyone was full speed. He'll make sure we don't get satisfied or get complacent."
One good win over SIU last week is not enough for the Illini. It is a long season, and there are many challenges ahead beginning Saturday. As Zook states, continued improvement is essential.
"We're just one game at a time. I think they understand the importance of this game, they understand the importance of it for the season. For us to have the kind of year we want to have it's going to be important we improve.
"Not only do we have to be concerned about our opponent, we have to be concerned with us, we have to improve. We have to play with the same intensity, the same aggressiveness, the same way we played this past week. And that was a good football team last week. They're supposedly the number two team in I-AA, so we felt like we played better.
"We're not where we have to be, we have to continue to get better. We got a lot of young guys out there. This game's going to be important that we go out there and continue to do the same things and play for 60 minutes."
Illini players understand that, but they also enjoy the good feeling they have from playing a good game and getting positive feedback from fans. Jenkins believes this is the start of something good.
"I'm happy that we're winning games and going in a good direction. It's been a couple years we haven't been performing up to par. We've got to make some noise in the Big 10. I think this is going to be the year."
Right now, just getting to 2 and 1 would be a tremendous boost for the Illini. It won't be easy, but Wilson understand the game's importance.
"That's a big difference. It helps your confidence a lot when you're over .500. If you get your confidence going into a very tough schedule like we have, it helps.
"We're looking forward to this game. It's a very important game for us. It's the biggest game of our year right now because it's the next game on our schedule. We're really going to bring it this game so we can be above .500."