It's been a little more than nine months since UW played in the Champs Sports Bowl and while the Badgers are a vastly different team with new players, a new agenda and better mindsets, the last game is still the last game.
Although the players and coaching staff has moved on, all of Badger Nation will be anxious to see this new-look football team when Wisconsin hosts Northern Illinois in the season opener under the Camp Randall lights at 6 p.m. Saturday.
"We're very excited to be starting a new chapter this year," sophomore running back John Clay said. "We're focused on taking things game by game, play by play and having confidence in each other to make last season a memory."
All indications point that State Street will be full of partiers Saturday night, enjoying a 1-0 start for the Wisconsin Badgers. All the positive thinkers will simply look at the facts.
UW is 13-0 in non-conference home games over the last five seasons, has won 14 straight non-conference home games dating back to 2003 and has won 11 consecutive season openers dating back to 1996.
Wisconsin is 28-3 all-time against teams in the Mid-American Conference, including winning 16 in a row and 10 of 11 against Northern Illinois.
Northern Illinois returns only four defensive starters, has to replace two offensive lineman, five senior wide receivers and defensive end Larry English, hands down the Huskies best player last season.
Despite the Badgers having blown out Northern Illinois recently (a 44-3 victory in October 2007) and having plenty of film on the Huskies, the Badgers aren't taking anything for granted, especially coming off a season when nothing was guaranteed.
"They are a team that played Tennessee to a 13-9 game a year ago (and) Minnesota had to score on its last drive to win that game, both of them on the road," Head Coach Bret Bielema said. "They are a very good football team. Coach Kill has done a tremendous job of getting Northern Illinois back to where it was, that's four bowl games in five years, which is an impressive record."
After being thrown into the fire last season as a redshirt freshman, quarterback Chandler Harnish should be more comfortable in his surroundings this time around. A solid playmaker with good passing mechanics and mobility, Harnish was the team's mainstay at quarterback (playing in 10 games, throwing for 1,528 yards and eight touchdowns, with nine interceptions) and led the team in rushing with 539 yards and four touchdowns, all this despite missing four games with a foot injury.
Nine receivers caught at least eight passes in 2008, but no receiver gained over 500 yards and only two exceeded 280 yards. Most of those receivers, however, are no longer on the team, meaning the Huskies will need more production from a youthful unit.
Despite the departure of English to the NFL, the Huskies saw a lot of players get reps on the defensive line, including senior Brandon Bice, who will be the key player if the Huskies want to match last year's numbers of 25 sacks for 143 lost yards.
NIU's defense ranked in the top 20 in the nation in yards (298.5 per game), scoring (18 ppg) and passing (161.1 ypg) while nine opponents were held to 17 points or fewer, the first time in school history that have achieved that feat.
"Our guys are aware of what's coming in here Saturday," Bielema said. "The outside world view is important because it's reality. The guys are going to take the field on Saturday will know the importance of the opponent we are playing."
Wisconsin is young in its own right, having a 103-man roster consisting of 46 freshmen, 25 sophomores, 16 juniors and 16 seniors. Of the 55 players listed on the offensive and defensive depth chart, only 10 are seniors and 31 are freshmen or sophomores, not to mention a starting quarterback (junior Scott Tolzien) that will be making his first career start under center.
"We're young, but that's what makes us hard to prepare for," said freshman Travis Frederick, who is expected to start at center in his first game as a Badger. "We just need to go out and do what we've been doing for all of camp."
What the Badgers really have been doing all of the 09 fall camp is having accountability. Gone from the team is selfishness, bitterness and lacksidasical effort. During the three weeks of camp, every time a penalty was committed, that player was removed from the field and would run after practice. Quit on a play equals running. Miss an assignment, you're running. Missing too many classes – the whole position group takes a jog.
"One of the things that we have done this year opposed to last year is we have concentrated on the little things," sophomore wide receiver Nick Toon said. "We don't let the little things slide, we take care of the small details and stopped some of the things we let slip through our fingers last year. All of those things have created a different atmosphere and we're carrying those things over."
The Badgers will have plenty of chances to gain momentum over the first third of the season, playing four straight home games to open the season for only the third time since 1982. But after a roller coaster 2008, the Badgers are not looking ahead, just wanting a solid first step in 09.
"For the first game, there is a four-week preparation opposed to the one week that we get during the regular season," Toon said. "I think by the time camp is over and we get into that last week of game prep, everybody is kind of sick of going against their teammates and ready to go out, play a game and see it pay off."
Northern Illinois (0-0, 0-0 MAC) vs. Wisconsin (0-0, 0-0 Big Ten)
Date/Time - Saturday, September 5 at 6:01 p.m. CT
Arena – Camp Randall Stadium (capacity: 80,321 / FieldTurf)
Television - Big Ten Network (Wayne Larrivee, Chris Martin and Charissa Thompson)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay and Mike Lucas)
Series – Wisconsin leads 10-1
Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 44-3, on Oct. 20, 2007 in Madison
UW has compiled a 47-17 record over the last five seasons. That is the second-best record among Big Ten teams over that span, trailing only Ohio State.
Wisconsin is 28-3 all-time against teams currently in the Mid-American Conference. In their last game against a MAC team, the Badgers defeated Akron, 38-17, last year at Camp Randall. Including this year, UW has faced a MAC team in seven of the last eight seasons. Since its loss to Northern Illinois in 1988, Wisconsin has won 16 games in a row against MAC schools.
Wisconsin's four captains this season are all are seniors: TE Garrett Graham, TE Mickey Turner, DE O'Brien Schofield and DB Chris Maragos. Maragos is the latest in the long line of former walk-ons at Wisconsin to be named team captain. That list includes standouts such as Joe Panos, Donnel Thompson, Jason Doering, Jim Leonhard and Luke Swan.
Head coach Bret Bielema's 28-11 record is second-best among the 11 head coaches hired prior to the 2006 season. He trails only Chris Peterson of Boise State (35-4). Bielema and Peterson are the only two of those 11 head coaches to have led their teams to three straight bowl appearances.
Northern Illinois Notes:
The Huskies will start the season by facing a Big Ten opponent for the fifth straight year with four of those contests taking place on the road. A year ago, NIU opened at Minnesota with a 31-27 loss. Northern Illinois played host to Iowa at Chicago's Soldier Field in 2007 in the school's first ever home game against a Big Ten foe. The Huskies faced No. 1 ranked Ohio State in Columbus in 2006 and played Michigan in their 2005 opener.
When Kill calls his 2009 team "youngsters," the head coach is not exaggerating. Thirty-six players on this year's roster are new to the team, while another 19 have never played a down for the Huskies. Of those 55 players, the names of 22 appear on the NIU depth chart heading to Wisconsin, including seven on offense, 12 on defense and three specialists.
For the first time in 10 years, Northern Illinois, just like the Badgers have this year, has retained its entire football assistant coaching staff. The last time that NIU was able to begin a season with the same coaching staff as the previous year was in 1999, a season that saw a three-game improvement in victories.
The Huskies' roster includes nine Wisconsinites, and five of those are expected to make the trip to Madison, including 2009 signees Jared Volk (Hartland) and Zach Anderson (Ladysmith). Redshirt freshman Jody Van Laanen (Green Bay), senior tight end Reed Cunningham (Cambria) and back-up center Scott Wedige (Elkhorn) are also on the travel list.
The final game in this three-game set between NIU and Wisconsin, which began in 2007 and continues this year, will be played Sept. 17, 2011 at Soldier Field in Chicago. The game will mark Northern Illinois' second "home" game at the historic Chicago landmark as NIU and Iowa played in front of a sold-out crowd at Soldier Field on Sept. 1, 2007.
Over the last five years, Northern Illinois has made more postseason appearances - four - than any team in the Mid-American Conference.
Not a bad being a prognosticator last season, as the only two picks I bumbled on were Michigan and Illinois. After a long year of Wisconsin football, basketball and hockey, it's good to finally start a new season.
The spread is set at a paltry 16.5 points in favor of the home team, a number that reflects on how poorly UW played last season and how many pieces both teams have to replace. I can't speak for the Huskies, but the Badgers look like a cohesive unit heading into this opener. Sure, UW has struggled in the season opener the last couple of years, but none of those teams compare to the amount of pent-up frustration the upperclassmen have bottled up inside after last season than this team.
I like what Tolzien brings to the table, the depth at running back and the potential of Wisconsin's defense. Throw in the fact that UW opens with a night game (having won 21 of its last 24 under the lights), a house full of big-time recruits and a rowdy atmosphere for the opener, each of those factors will contribute to UW starting the season … what's the phrase Bret? Oh yeah, 1-0.
Wisconsin 42, Northern Illinois 20
Straight up in 2008: 11-2
Against the Spread in 2008: 9-4