Northern Illinois-Kansas preview: Open casting call for conference realignment

Northern Illinois players are glad the Army game is behind them. Preparing for the triple option, with its associated kneecapping cutblocks is no fun.

So Kansas is a welcome sight on the schedule, even if the Jayhawks are expected to use their speed and run, run, run.

This game is more important though than a win in the standings.

Apparently it is time for open auditions for a starring role in next year's conference alignment. Northern Illinois has a vocal group of students who feel the Huskies could move into the Big XII quite easily. But the conference is also in jeopardy of exploding before Northern gets that chance.

The spotlight is still there. If Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Baylor are left out in the cold with the latest wave of defections from the conference now known as the Big-formerly-12-then-10-now-maybe-nine-possibly-five, Northern Illinois could be an attractive piece should another Middle American conference arise.

It would need a name though. The MAC? Has a nice ring to it.

So what should Northern fans expect in this audition? Here are five things to watch

1. Kansas likes to run, so will Northern improve on its defensive performance last week?

Anytime you play Army, it is going to kill your rushing defense stats. That Northern Illinois gave up more than 400 yards in the game is a little bit deceiving. Almost half of the yards came in the fourth quarter, with the Huskies comfortably in the lead. That is no excuse for letting up, but it shows that things aren't as bad as they look on paper.

The Jayhawks ran for 301 yards against McNeese State, which admittedly is not the Northern defense. The Huskies should be a little stiffer up front than the Cowboys were, and keep Kansas from just rolling on the ground.

2. Will the Northern Illinois offense repeat its performance this week?

McNeese State was able to put together long drives against Kansas, including 325 yards through the air. This should play directly into Chandler Harnish's hands. There should be no issues passing the ball, probably with a similar game plan to the one used against Army.

Northern also averaged more than six yards per carry on the ground against the Black Knights, thanks to big games from Harnish and Jasmin Hopkins. Kansas' defense gave up more than 200 yards on the ground per game last season, but didn't seem to have an issue with McNeese State. The Huskies should put up a little more of a fight, and Kansas won't necessarily be ready for the no huddle.

3. Will Northern hold up against the big play?

Kansas only threw the ball 10 times against McNeese State because it didn't need to throw the ball. When they did, the ball went a long way.

The Jayhawks scored two touchdowns on plays of more than 45 yards, both passes to JaCorey Shepherd. Shutting down this big play option will be essential for Northern Illinois. The bad news is that the defensive backs didn't exactly get a lot of practice against Army.

Expect to see a bit of double coverage on Shepherd or at least safety help, given that Daymond Patterson could be out for the Jayhawks.

4. Does Northern's line get pressure on Kansas quarterback Jordan Webb?

Even with double coverage on Shepherd, lacking pressure on the sophomore Webb could be the downfall for the Huskies. Because of Army's offensive style, Northern scored just one sack in the opener.

Defensive end Alan Baxter thinks that the Huskies are in perfect position to get inside against the Jayhawks though, because of Northern's own big-time line.

"They've got a big offensive line," he said at the weekly press conference. "But we go against 300-plus offensive linemen every single day at practice, so it helps a ton when we're playing big-time opponents like Kansas."

If the Huskies stop the run like they have planned, count on at least three sacks in this one.

5. The Huskies are a 4.5 point favorite, can they cover?

This line has moved two points in a day. Northern was almost a touchdown favorite on the road, but it has since fallen to 4.5 points. Not sure what could have caused the big wad of cash on Kansas, but it happened, and the Huskies' chances of covering just get easier.

The biggest risk is another letdown in the fourth quarter. Army almost climbed back into it, and made the bettors out there a little nervous. Kansas has a lot more talent and big play potential. But the Northern offense should be too good.

This one is a Northern Illinois win, 34-23.

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