Eight Reasons For Concern vs. NIU

Iowa State plays its biggest game of the season next Saturday at DeKalb, Illinois. (This is the first year that THAT sentence has ever been uttered.) Northern Illinois (3-0) will play host to the Cyclones, who will need a victory to improve to 3-1 for the season.

A couple of months ago, this looked like a pretty tough game for ISU. Today, it appears to be much more difficult than that…a game that could turn the Cyclone season one direction or the other.

Here are eight reasons this game scares me…

1) All the pressure is on Iowa State. For the Cyclones to give themselves a good shot at a fourth consecutive bowl season, this is a game they really need to get. A 3-1 record heading into Big 12 play will give ISU a decent shot at it. With a loss, the Cyclones would be 2-2 going into league action…and the odds would not look very good.

Plus, this could be an excellent "statement" game for Iowa State. The team could go on the road with its tough defense and young quarterback, and accomplish something that Maryland failed to do earlier this season. The Cyclones' confidence would receive a huge boost with a victory.

On the other hand, Northern Illinois has almost nothing to lose. The Huskies would have been very happy with a 3-1 start if it were offered to them in August.

2) The MAC is obviously under-rated. Bowling Green beat #20 Purdue, 27-26, on September 6…and barely lost at Ohio State, 24-17, this weekend. Marshall knocked off #6 Kansas State, 27-20, in Manhattan, Kansas. Toledo beat #11 Pittsburgh, 35-31. And the Huskies have taken down #14 Maryland and Alabama so far.

Of course, these results make me want to see a playoff system at the end of the season, but that's an argument for another day.

3) The Northern Illinois players KNOW they can win this game. In fact, they'll expect to win it. With everyone on the DeKalb campus riding high this week, the Huskies will be as confident as ever. Don't think for one minute that they're questioning whether they can get the job done against the Cyclones.

4) Michael Turner is a terrific tailback. With 4.4 speed and good size (223 pounds), Turner is an excellent player with an NFL future. If the Huskies can continue to win, he's probably a decent Heisman candidate. (The total number of college players who still list themselves as "Heisman candidates" is now down to 872.)

Turner ripped up the Alabama defense for 156 yards on 27 carries (5.8-yard average). For the season, he's totaled 380 yards on 84 carries, for a 4.5-yard average, and a pair of TDs. He's also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. Look for the Huskies to feature him as much as possible this Saturday. ISU will need to figure out a way to contain Turner.

5) Northern Illinois has very good special teams. Ohhhhhh NOOOOOOOOO! Special teams…there's that category again. Does it need to get any more SCARY than that? How good are the Huskies? They blocked TWO kicks against Alabama, which gives them 13 blocked kicks in their last 16 games. Kicker Steve Azar also drilled a 51-yard field goal against the Tide, his second from beyond 50 yards this season. And for good measure, Anthony Gallagher (no relation) punted seven times for a 46.4-yard average…and only two of his boots were returned, for a measly seven yards total. Looks like NIU has the complete package in the special teams area, something that was Iowa State's "El Guapo" against Iowa.

6) The Huskies have a strong defense. Eight of the top 11 tacklers return this season for NIU and it has shown on the scoreboard. In three games, the Huskies have allowed only 46 points (15.3 ppg).

7) NIU quarterback Josh Haldi spreads the ball around. Against Alabama, Haldi completed at least two passes to five different receivers. Clearly, P.J. Fleck is his "go-to guy," as Fleck has 23 catches for 190 yards in two games. But another receiver, Dan Sheldon, has three TD receptions. And Sam Hurd has a pair of scoring catches.

In addition, Haldi doesn't make many mistakes. He's completed 63% of his passes for 667 yards, with 7 touchdowns and only one interception…good for a 152.5 passer rating.

8) The Northern Illinois team is on a mission. The Huskies have beaten a team from the ACC (Maryland) and the SEC (Alabama). Now, they want to score the trifecta by defeating a team from the Big 12. Think the fans in DeKalb will be fired up at all about THAT on Saturday?

Before you think that NIU will be over-confident coming into the game with Iowa State, the Huskies are 0-6 against Big 12 teams since 1991, including a 54-10 loss to the Cyclones in 1993. There is plenty of motivation available for them if they want it.

I'm just glad that Iowa State has had two weeks to prepare for this one.

(Marty Gallagher founded the popular web site IowaSportsOpinions.com. His columns for CN online are published each Tuesday and Friday. You can e-mail him at Marty@IowaSportsOpinions.com.)

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