The Huskies hired Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren as the school's new head coach and as Doeren was preparing his defense for the Rose Bowl, he watched his new team dismantle Fresno State 40-17 in the Humanitarian Bowl with the same balanced offensive attack that put 65 points against Toledo, 59 against Ball State and 71 against Eastern Michigan in the final three weeks of the season.
Now, he'll have the challenging task of shutting down the offense he saw in practice for five seasons when his new squad hosts his old squad at Chicago's Soldier Field on Sept.17 at 2:30 p.m.
When Kill left, the search committee wanted a coach with Midwest ties, someone with lots of energy, someone who would take a personal interest in each player, the community and academics and be a positive promotional tool for the school. In essence, the Huskies wanted someone to build Northern Illinois into a school like Wisconsin, which was why they knew Doeren was the right choice.
Doeren was solid when it came to building solid defenses at Wisconsin, a unit that was consistently ranked in the national top 25 in NCAA defensive categories. The 2010 Wisconsin defense ranked in the Top 30 in total, rushing and scoring defense and ranked fifth in the country in rushing defense in ‘09, allowing just 88.2 yards per game to record the second-best rush defense in school history.
It was only fitting that one of Doeren's first tasks on the job was to spend two hours shoveling out of his Madison driveway and making the two hour journey to Dekalb for his final walkthrough.
At his introductory press conference, Doeren spelled out his plan for building the junior Wisconsin, utilizing a balanced offense attack with a lot of different shifts and motions the talent that's already in place. That physical offense is going to be engineered by a quarterback that knows what it's like to play the Badgers in a big setting.
Northern Illinois was the best team in the MAC last season because of its offense and nine starters are back from that unit, including fifth-year senior Chandler Harnish. A first-team all-conference selection, Harnish led the MAC in pass efficiency with a 157.8 mark and his 194.6 passing yards per game and his 64.3 rushing yards per game make him a duel threat. Even with stud running back Chad Spann gone, NIU will be solid with Harnish and his five offensive linemen back.
The spring game was an indication of how good the NIU offense can be under offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Sprinkling in a little no-huddle offense, the Huskies scored three times inside the five, once on a 57-yard pass and another on a 13-yard run by Harnish that capped a successful two-minute drill.
"I think it was kind of up and down," Harnish told reporters after the game. "We did a lot of good things, but at the same time we got stopped a few times. We're looking to score 50, 60 points a game. If we want to do that we have to be very consistent, assignment oriented and do our job."
If the Huskies want to win, Harnish will need to do find the answer to Wisconsin's defense from the opening kickoff, something he was unable to do in 2009. The Badgers limited Northern Illinois to 151 yards through the first three quarters, kept the Huskies offense out of the end zone until there was only eight minutes, 29 seconds left in the game and limited their offense to 3-for-12 on third downs.
The Badgers led 28-6 going into the fourth quarter, but Harnish led the Huskies to a pair of late touchdowns, plus a two-point conversion, cut the lead to 8 with 2:47 remaining. Northern Illinois recovered an onside kick but couldn't convert on fourth-and-3 at Wisconsin's 36-yard line. Harnish finished 15-of-24 for 174 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions.
Now a senior, Harnish is leading the offseason conditioning program and pushing for accountability.
"The months of June and July are by far more important than August, September and October," Harnish said, "because it's what you do in those offseason months that allow you to perform to the ability that you can during the season. We have to push to the next level if we want to be an 11-win team, or better."
Defensively, Doeren's philosophy isn't going to change, as he plans to have an aggressive, smart, tough defensive unit.
"We need to be sound and play with great technique, playing hard and understanding how to leverage the football and how to tackle, how to create takeaways and get our offense the football as fast and in as good a place on the field as we can," Doeren said. "I think on both sides you're going to find that's going to play aggressive, and that's something I promise that they're going to get from me."
Doeren's defensive magic will come eventually, but it might take some time for it to happen in DeKalb, especially since NIU loses seven starters. Three starters are gone from the secondary, including both starting corners, and three starters are gone from the defensive front, including pass rushing terror Jake Coffman. Throw in the fact that the team's leading tackler – Devon Butler – was shot in the back in an off-campus drive-by shooting in April and will miss the season, Doeren has work to do to find some hidden gems.
"Well right now the biggest thing is consistency," defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said during spring. We're up and down. The first scrimmage was really good, really positive. The second and third scrimmages weren't, but the practices in between the second and third scrimmages were really pretty good. So with a lot of people changing and coming in and out of the lineup, and somewhat a young group with unidentified leaders, you're going to have some of those things happen. But we're just trying to get them to play on an even keel and come out and give us the same thing every day."
It will be an interesting year for Doeren, who not only will play former employers Kansas and Wisconsin in back-to-back weeks, he'll get another look at Cal Poly, whose triple option attack almost beat his squad in 2008. Wisconsin's defense – which has been hyped up headed into the season – will face its toughest non-conference assignment in this unique venue.
Overall Record: UW leads 11-1-0
Record in Illinois: First Meeting
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won, 28-20, in Madison in 2009