Northern Iowa is ranked between seventh and tenth for all FCS teams. For comparison, using Sagarin rankings from 2011, the tenth best FCS team was ranked about 108th for all FBS and FCS teams combined, about the same as terrible squads fielded by Colorado and Maryland. The Badgers have no business losing to Northern Iowa for the home opener. All the same, it should be noted that for the opening game against Iowa State in 2011, UNI almost managed the upset at Ames, losing 20-19.
2, Run the Ball
Though this can probably be repeated for each game, it'll never be truer than against UNI. The Panthers lose six of their defensive front seven from 2011. This will allow the Badgers to break in a new quarterback (Danny O'Brien), a new Offensive Coordinator (Matt Canada) and new right side of the offensive line (right guards Zac Matthias/Kyle Costigan and right tackle Rob Havenstein). Havenstein and Matthias have some playing experience but Costigan has zero at his new position. One of the interesting position battles from fall camp saw Costigan prevail over Robert Burge. Costigan's strength is his ability to move in blocking formations and get to the second level. It will be worth watching what Costigan is asked to do in his first game.
And it has to be said, but Badgers fans will be eager to see Montee Ball in the first half. Ball will have a chance to put the distractions of summer behind him and reassure the faithful.
3, Pick Apart the Middle
UNI's strength on defense comes from the defensive backfield. All four starters have significant game experience, led by cornerback Varmah Sonie. The safer bet here is for the Badgers to attack the seams between the d-backs and an inexperienced group of linebackers for UNI. Expect Canada and the Badgers to throw for medium gains out of multiple tight end sets and to run basic passing routes for Ball and James White out of the backfield. It won't be surprising if a Badger H-back or tailback gets "lost" in coverage by an NIU linebacker. This is a pattern O'Brien excelled at during preseason camp.
4, Pick Your Spots on Defense
UNI will start redshirt freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen. Kollmorgen has no college experience and will be making his debut at Camp Randall against a top 10 team. There won't be much need to pressure Kollmorgen as an experienced UW backfield of safety Shelton Johnson, safety Dezmen Southward, cornerback Devin Smith and cornerback Marcus Cromartie come in to the opener with 42 combined stars and many more games played. Look for extra outside pressure on long third downs from linebacker Chris Borland or perhaps linebacker Derek Landisch. Timed right, this could lead to forced turnovers from the freshman Panthers QB.
5,Stay Healthy, Get Ready Health is more a concern for future weeks than for the first game, but the Badgers need a healthy season from sometimes-injured David Gilbert and from the defensive backfield. The DBs are less deep than imagined just one week ago as promising nickelback Peniel Jean is thought to be out for at least four weeks. Depth behind Jean is untested but promising with Darius Hillary and Devin Gaulden.
The Badgers kickers will need the game experience as they build to the Big Ten season. Punting might be an adventure early on, but not enough to spoil the opener.
Fearless Prediction UW 51, NIU 10. The Badgers will run the ball to the left behind stalwarts Ricky Wagner, Ryan Groy and Travis Frederick, gaining yards almost at will. O'Brien will test his timing with H-Backs and tight ends, with only the occasional look downfield.
For the Badgers' defensive effort, expect UNI to move the ball a little when on their side of the field. But as the field shortens, the Badgers will stop the Panthers, forcing a few turnovers on long third downs. UNI might get a score due to short field after a shanked punt.
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