Breakdown/Prediction: Northern Iowa

Roughly eight months after last taking the field, Wisconsin - ranked No.12 in the AP poll in the preseason - kicks off the 2012 season Saturday against Northern Iowa. Badger Nation looks at the matchup.

Northern Iowa (0-0, 0-0 Missouri Valley) vs. No.12 Wisconsin (0-0, 0-0 Big Ten)

Date/Time - Saturday, September 1 at 2:42 p.m. CT

Stadium –Camp Randall Stadium (80,321/FieldTurf)

Television - Big Ten Network (Kevin Kugler, Chris Martin and Jay Wilson)

Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)

Series – First meeting

Last Meeting – First meeting

Series Notes

Wisconsin is playing host to an FCS opponent for the seventh-consecutive season.

The Badgers are 10-0 all-time against FCS opponents, including a 3-0 mark against teams from the Missouri Valley Football Conference, last beating Western Illinois, 34-10, in 2006.

Northern Iowa is 2-10 against FBS opponents under head coach Mark Farley, but three of the Panthers' losses to FBS squads have come by a one-point margin — including a 20-19 setback to Iowa State in last year's season-opener. The Panthers last beat an FCS team in 2007, beating Iowa State.

Wisconsin Notes

The Badgers led the country in third-down percentage last season, converting 93 of their 170 third-down attempts (54.7 percent). That is the second-best season performance in school history (.583 in 1993).

UW has finished among the top 10 in third-down conversions in each of the last three seasons, the only school in the country to do so.

Wisconsin converted 64 of its 75 red zone attempts into touchdowns, leading the country with a .853 TD percentage in the red zone. Overall, UW was second in the country in red-zone scoring (71- of-75, .947).

The Badgers have been among the top five in the country in red zone offense in each of the last three seasons, scoring TDs on 160 of their 199 (.804) trips inside the red zone in that span.

The Badgers ranked 15th in the country in total defense (316.4 yards per game) and held eight of their 14 opponents under 300 yards of total offense last season. UW is 31-2 under head coach Bret Bielema when holding its opponent to less than 300 yards.

Wisconsin has allowed an average of 314.7 yards per game over the last three seasons. Only Ohio State (282.6) has a better total defense in the Big Ten during that span.

UW has committed the fewest turnovers in the nation in each of the past two seasons, leading the FBS with 9 in 2010 and matching LSU for the fewest in the nation in 2011 with 10.

Northern Iowa Notes

UNI captured its second-consecutive Missouri Valley Football Conference title by finishing with a 7-1 league record last season. The Panthers have claimed at least a share of the MVFC title in four of the last five seasons.

A 1987 graduate of UNI, Mark Farley begins his 12th season as the head coach at his alma mater. Farley went from walk-on to team captain during his playing career for the Panthers.

In 11 seasons as head coach, Farley has led UNI to seven MVFC championships, seven playoff appearances — including three trips to the semifinals and a berth in the 2005 national title game — and six 10-win seasons.

Farley is the winningest coach in MVFC history with a 60-20 record in league games. Overall, he has amassed a 99-40 record at UNI.

UNI has an all-time record of 20-64-5 vs. FBS opponents. Most of the success has come in the last 26 years, with a 9-21 mark against FBS teams since 1985.

Even though Cedar Falls is only a few hours away from the state of Wisconsin, the Panthers only have two players on their current roster who are from the Badger State. Standout offensive lineman Misha Danilov is from Middleton, Wis., which is only 17 minutes away from Madison.

Tight end Sam Rohr hails from Brookfield, Wis. which is only a little over an hour away from Madison.

UNI is 57-49-7 all-time in season openers and 14-8 in the last 21 years. UNI is 6-5 in season openers under head coach Mark Farley. The last time UNI opened the season with a road win came in 2006, when the Panthers defeated Drake. The last time UNI opened the season with a road win over an FBS opponent came in 1998, when the Panthers tallied a 13-10 win at Eastern Michigan.

Prediction

Defensive coordinator Chris Ash calls Northern Iowa ‘a great opening opponent' for Wisconsin, as the Panthers aren't the typical FCS teams fans have been used to seeing Wisconsin beat down over the years. Having a winning tradition (16 conference championships, seven trips to the FCS semifinals and six top-five rankings since 2001) and multiple offensive schemes has given UW a unique preparation over the last 10-14 days.

"It will prepare us for the rest of the season," said Ash. "We have to do a great job of preparing for these guys and being ready."

It seems a long time since Wisconsin football last played a game. Actually, Saturday's game will be one day short of eight months since the Badgers were in Pasadena playing for the Rose Bowl title. Many predict the 2012 season will also end in southern California, meaning Wisconsin will be the first team since Michigan in the late 1970s to play in the Rose Bowl three straight years, but that's easier said than done.

Defensively, Wisconsin's final statistics were respectable – ranking 15th in the country in total defense – and holding eight of their 14 opponents under 300 yards of total offense. But when Wisconsin went against elite passing offenses, the Badgers often succumbed to the big plays, like Hail Mary's and Oregon's speed, that prevented last year from being truly special.

"We can't give up big plays, especially scoring big plays," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "No matter what happens, we can't let people get into the end zone. We need to be the same team we are in big games that we are in every game.

"Tackling for the most part overall I thought was fairly good. Oregon makes you look like a bad tackling team because you can't catch them."

Wisconsin did so many things right defensively last season – holding 10 opponents to fewer than 18 points, forced 28 turnovers – but a breakdown here and a missed tackle there cost Wisconsin a chance to play LSU for the national championship. Knowing how close his team was, Bielema made a huge push with his team since January to learn the ‘academic side' of football.

When the media was allowed in to camp, the change was noticeable among the returning players.

"I would say missed assignments contributed to more big plays than anything," said Bielema. "Kids didn't know until after (the play) that they were supposed to do this. We want to be smarter football players."

With six returning starters on defense along with a linebackering corps and secondary comprised entirely of upperclassmen, one hopes that mental gaffs are a thing of the past.

From an offensive standpoint, offensive coordinator Matt Canada has simple expectations for his group: take care of the football, be assignment sound, be physical up front and show the same consistency the group did throughout camp.

"I certainly expect (what happened in camp) to carry forward," said Canada, who takes over an offense that averaged 44.1 points per game last season. "We're putting a premium on the football. It's the basis of what this program is set on and what any good offense is set on."

Danny O'Brien was impressive with his command of the position; the UW running back depth was overwhelming; the play on the offensive line looked consistent and powerful and the tight end talent id abundant. Wisconsin likely won't be as explosive as it was last year, but the offense should be strong once again.

Canada used the phrase, ‘Let's jump in the deep water with the big sharks and let's go play,' and the sharks will be circling the visitors and their freshman quarterback Saturday.

The magic number on offense is 21, as UNI is 70-5 in the Mark Farley era (2001-present) when holding the opposition to 20 points or less. The magic number on defense is 29, as the Panthers are 65-3 in the Mark Farley years when scoring 30 or more points in a game. Both of those things shouldn't be an issue. Wisconsin goes to 1-0.

Wisconsin 41, Northern Iowa 17

Worgull's Predictions

Straight up: 10-4

Against the Spread: 7-7

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