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2016 Week 1 Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies at Wyoming Cowboys

The Huskies open up 2016 in Laramie, Wyoming

NCAA Football: Wyoming at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies will take on two Mountain West foes in the first 14 days of the 2016 season.

It all begins late on Saturday, September 3rd when the Huskies travel west to Laramie to face the Wyoming Cowboys. It will be NIU’s first game against the Cowboys and the 21st game against teams currently in the Mountain West. The Huskies are 10-10 in the previous match ups.

The Cowboys are coming off of a 2-10 season, in which they were only able to beat teams from Silver State apparently, winning at home against Nevada and UNLV. They even lost to perennial MAC bottom feeder EMU by 20 points.

However, they are poised to do a lot better this year as they return 18 starters; including last season’s leading rusher, Brian Hill, and free safety standout, Andrew Wingard.

Offensively the Cowboys use a pro-style formation, with a nearly even split between rushing and passing attempts and they return almost every player - with nine returning starters.

One of the two players not returning was last year’s starting quarterback, leaving sophomore Nick Smith as the most experienced signal caller. However, it looks like it will be sophomore Josh Allen who gets the nod in week one. In just two games last year Allen went 4 of 6 for 51 yards whereas Smith threw the ball in four games, going 27-60 (45%) for 245 yards and had two TDs and one interception.

On the ground Wyoming will get back Shaun Wick, who suffered a season-ending injury early last year. Wick, who was on the Doak Walker Watchlist to start the 2015 season, was a huge part of their rushing attack in 2014 when he amassed 753 yards and six touchdowns on just 126 carries...that’s an average of 6 yards per touch. Joining Wick is last year’s workhorse, Brian Hill. Hill powered his way to 1631 yards (the most ever for a Wyoming player; and 8th in the nation), six scores, and had an average of 5.8 yards per carry.

The Cowboys also return their two leading receivers, Tanner Gentry and Jake Maulhardt. Gentry led all wide outs with 678 yards while Maulhardt led in receptions (57) and touchdowns (8) and was second in yardage with 653. Gentry suffered a shoulder injury and missed the final five games last year, which make his number even more impressive. Shawun Lurry is going to have his hands full here.

Wyoming’s defense runs a 4-3 Tampa 2 system and, like their offense, brings back almost everyone - eight of the 11 starters return this year. Sophomore Andrew Wingard will helm the secondary. The safety was named a First Team Freshman All-American by the FWAA last year after he piled up 122 tackles (89 unassisted), seven TFL, two pass break ups, forced a fumble, and had an interception.

Senior linebacker Lucas Wacha also returns. He was second on the team with 96 tackles, six tackles in the backfield, and forced a fumble as well.

As a team, the Cowboys struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and forcing turnovers. They netted just ten turnovers (five INT, five fumbles), two QB hurries and ten sacks. Of those ten sacks, seven came from Eddie Yarbrough, who graduated after last year.

Offensively the Huskies need to keep a balanced attack going. This is very young Wyoming squad but they have a lot of experience from last season. Between Joel Bouagnon’s power and Kenny Golladay’s height (he has at least a four inch advantage over every DB), NIU should be able to move the ball well. Drew Hare will need to be smart with his throws since this defense will be looking to force a lot more turnovers this season...and Wingard is certainly capable of doing just that.

On defense, Lurry and the rest of the secondary wont have the easiest time with Gentry and Maulhardt but NIU’s depth and experience should help them win the day. Look for the Huskies linebackers to be the difference makers in this game. They’ll need to stay focused in order to stop Hill’s powerful running game while also defending the pass.

Don’t let Wyoming’s 2-10 record last year deceive you; this is a young team that has had plenty of game-time experience. It could be closer than people think. But the Huskies should have the talent to walk out of War Memorial Stadium 1-0.

You can watch the game at 9:30 p.m. CST, Saturday, September 3rd on CBSSports Network.