KU vs. NIU - Preview

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," Gill said.

"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 Jasmin Hopkins.

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 them."

KU stops them in a thriller, 27-24.

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