2006 Opponent Preview: Northern Illinois

In the first of a 14-part series, we look at OSU's opening game against Northern Illinois. The Huskies, led by 1,580-yard rusher Garrett Wolfe, won the MAC West Division championship a year ago. Coach Joe Novak's teams have knocked off some big names in the past. Click here for more.

Here is the first in a Bucknuts.com series on Ohio State's 2006 football opponents as well as a preview, as the days wear on, for the Big Ten in 2006. We begin with the Sept. 2 opener with Northern Illinois.

Northern Illinois

* Date, Time: Sat., Sept. 2, 3:30 p.m. (ABC regional; the network also has Rutgers-North Carolina and Stanford-Oregon in the same time slot).

* Location: Ohio Stadium.

* Last Year, Bowl: 7-5. MAC West: 6-2/first (tie).

* Coach: Joe Novak (11th year at NIU, 54-60)

* Returning Starters: 14. Offense (5): LT Doug Free, RT Jon Brost, WR Britt Davis, QB Phil Horvath, RB Garrett Wolfe. Defense (7): DE Ken West, DE Larry English, SLB Keenan Blalark, MLB Tim McCarthy, CB Adriel Hansbro, FS Dustin Utschig, CB Alvah Hansbro. Specialists (2): K Chris Nendick, P Andy Dittbenner.

* Last League Championship: 1983.

* Last Bowl Appearance: 2004.

* Series Vs. Ohio State: This will be the first match-up ever between the two schools.

* Schedule: Sept. 2, Ohio State; Sept. 9, Ohio U.; Sept. 16, Buffalo; Sept. 23, Indiana State; Sept. 30, at Ball State; Oct. 7, at Miami (Ohio); Oct. 14, at Western Michigan; Oct. 21, Temple; Oct. 28, at Iowa; Nov. 7, Toledo; Nov. 17, Central Michigan; Nov. 24, at Eastern Michigan.

* Outlook: NIU gave up a touchdown in the closing seconds to Akron in the MAC title game last year, otherwise the Huskies would have broken a two-decade league championship drought. Novak, whose Huskies have upset the likes of Alabama, Maryland and Iowa State in recent years, has a number of key offensive pieces back this year.

Horvath was sixth nationally in quarterback rating a year ago after throwing for 2,001 yards and 18 touchdowns against eight interceptions. He suffered a broken arm in the eighth game. Sophomore Dan Nicholson finished the season and is battling Horvath for the starting job.

"The competition at quarterback between Phil and Dan has been great throughout camp," Novak said. "Both have had excellent camps and nothing has changed as far as naming one or the other as the starter. We have confidence in both, whichever one will be our starter at Ohio State. Ryan Morris has established himself as our third quarterback and we are pleased with the progress he has made."

The diminuitive Wolfe (5-7, 173) was second in rushing yardage per game last year after tallying 1,580 yards and 16 TDs in nine games. He did most of his damage running behind the 6-7, 302-pound Free.

"I'm excited about the potential we have at that running back position," Novak said. "I'd like to get situations where we can get Garrett out of there a little bit. 12 games is a long season, I know this, when he carries it 40 times a game, that's a lot for anybody, but like I said, when it's crunch time, No. 1 will get it, I can promise you that."

The NIU defense is young but talented. English, just a sophomore at end, was active with 78 tackles a year ago. The secondary is strong with leading tackler Utschig (121 tackles, three interceptions) and the Hansbro twins at the corner spots.

"We're trying to get more athleticism on the defensive side of the ball," Novak said. "We're seeing so many spread offenses in the MAC now, one back, no backs type of thing, ones that have the ability to run, make plays in the open field, and that's one of the harder things to do in football. We've got to have more athletic type people out there, so I'd like to hope that we upgraded that."

As noted, NIU has played in some of college football's toughest environments. The Huskies fell 33-17 at Michigan and dropped a 38-37 decision at Northwestern. They should be up for the opener at Ohio State.

* Jerry Rudzinski Says: It's Northern Illinois. We have them at home. We should be able to go out and beat them. Garrett Wolfe is the big name. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season, so you have to take him into account.

Last year, they took on two Big Ten teams to start the year. Both of those were road games. They were flirting with those two games last year. They lost by a point at Northwestern. They went on and beat Miami and also won at Toledo. This is a good football team.

But they seem to be so one-dimensional running the ball. They look like they want to just keep handing the ball off to Wolfe, and that is not something a lot of people have been able to do against this Ohio State defense. The one thing OSU shows it can do week in and week out is stop the run. Even with nine new starters on defense, that will be the big thing in this game.

I think there may also be some questions about the NIU secondary. You look at the weapons Ohio State has. It could be a big day for the offense. I think OSU will also try and challenge the front to run the football to get ready for the Texas game.

* Steve Helwagen Says: The Big Ten and the MAC are working together with scheduling to fill the open dates, so expect to see more MAC opponents like this come through the Horseshoe.

It was several years ago when NIU shocked the college football world by upsetting Maryland, Alabama and Iowa State in the same year. That put them on the map.

Novak gets the most out of his players and they have had six straight winning seasons. This is more than just a fill-in game for Ohio State. This could be a tough test. We saw Marshall take OSU down to the wire before Mike Nugent hit that field goal on the final play in a 24-21 win.

The Buckeyes have not lost a home opener since 1978, and I don't think that string will be broken. OSU needs a strong showing to answer some critical questions and get ready for the showdown at Texas a week later.

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