WIU Preview: End of an Era

After Western Illinois and Wisconsin meet up for the Badgers' home opener on Saturday, Wisconsin has no more FCS schools on the schedule, meaning Leathernecks coach Bob Nielsen and his program will need to look elsewhere for big competition.

MADISON - Bob Nielsen understands the impact the University of Wisconsin is giving his football team this Saturday.

After spending the last 20 years coaching college football throughout the lower divisions, Nielsen recognizes that the $450,000 guarantee his program is getting this weekend will pay a lot of expenses throughout the entire athletic department.

He also knows that taking his team into those types of environments is the perfect way to get his program ready for the Missouri Valley Conference.

“If we can play competitive in those games, you can play with anybody in our league,” Nielsen told BadgerNation. “Last year we go up to Minnesota and play a good Minnesota team in a very difficult environment. I felt we played competitively in that game and it helped us set the tone for playing competitively all year.”

It’s part of the reason why Nielsen acknowledged that the Big Ten going away from scheduling FCS opponents would change the way Western Illinois fills out its nonconference schedule.

When No.18 Wisconsin hosts Western Illinois (1-0) on Saturday, it will be the ninth straight season –and last – that the Badgers’ home schedule is occupied by a team from the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS).

There have been close calls over that time (Wisconsin needed overtime to beat Cal Poly 36-35 in 2008, and squeaked by Northern Iowa 26-21 in 2012), but the Badgers have outscored their FCS opponents by a combined total of 247-48, an average score of about 49-10, over the last five seasons.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and athletic directors in the 14 team conference have pledged to stop scheduling FCS opponents as soon as possible, a decision made to upgrade team’s strength of schedule to enhance their resumes for the new four-team College Football Playoff.

“It's a good situation for us to move forward and get one of those big time games earlier in the year like we just played,” said UW coach Gary Andersen, who coached five years at the FCS level. “Didn't win it, but it's still a great situation for us. We know a lot more about ourselves than we would have a year ago right now.”

Nielsen – who won two Division II national championships at Minnesota-Duluth with perfect seasons - is in his second year trying to rebuild the Western Illinois program. After finishing first or second in its conference in nine of 12 seasons from 1991-2002, the Leathernecks have recorded just one second place finish since.

“This place has got a strong football tradition,” said Nielsen. “It’s been through a couple of difficult years, and our goal last year was to get things back on the right track and moving forward. I felt like we did that in a lot of regards.”

The program’s 4-8 record last season doesn’t jump off the page, but the Leathernecks were a combined 5-17 the two previous years and Nielsen said his team was playing more competitively and more soundly by the end of the season.

That fact should help the 17 returning starters and 40 returning letter-winners, which were evident in the season-opening 45-6 win over Valparaiso on Aug.28.

Senior running back J.C. Baker – whose 1,149 rushing yards were third in the conference – finished with 177 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, while sophomore quarterback Trenton Norvell built upon his first full season as a starter by throwing for 320 yards, four touchdowns and no interception.

Defensively, a unit led by preseason third-team All-American cornerback Martinez Davis and do-everything linebacker Kevin Kintzel held the Crusaders to only 277 total yards and off the scoreboard until the final 2:33.

“We’ve got a lot of returning experience, but we’re still a very young football team,” said Nielsen. “Over 50 percent of our roster will be guys we recruited and brought into our program over the last year-and-a-half. That gives you an indication of how youthful we are as a team. We’ve got some young guys who can play, and that bodes well for the future. We need that group to really step forward.”

That’s part of the reason Nielsen is challenging his young bunch. Two weeks after visiting Madison, Western Illinois will travel to Evanston to play Northwestern. Both games will net the program six figures.

“We have one of the most competitive schedules in the country,” said Nielsen, who will also host FCS national champion North Dakota State Oct.4. “It’s a schedule where we’re going to be tested early.”

Because of the impending Big Ten scheduling embargo, Western Illinois has already inked contracts to play at Illinois in 2015 and ’18 and Northwestern again in 2017. But after playing in Madison in 1991 and 2006, this trip will likely be the last for the Leathernecks and their FCS counterparts.

“It’s a great experience for out student-athletes to play at this level,” said Nielsen. “You want to play and compete against the very best and those games (against the Big Ten) give you an opportunity to do that as student-athlete. I hope there will continue to be those type of scheduling opportunities for a team that’s never going to shy away from scheduling the very best teams in the country.

“Our team is a young football team, and we’re going to approach those games with great excitement and enthusiasm. They are games that will be substantial tests for our program.”

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