Life on the road -- the Vandals must be used to it by now. Tomorrow will be their third road game in four weeks to start the season, and it will arguably be the biggest test to date. As Robb Akey pointed out this week, Northern Illinois is 1-1 in the Big Ten. And the Dekalb, Ill., club easily could be 2-0.
Keep reading for things to watch in Idaho's thorny non-conference matchup in the Midwest.
We'll start with my preview filed for tomorrow's S-R:
Idaho at Northern Illinois
Kickoff: 12:30 p.m. PDT, Dekalb, Ill.
Records: Idaho 2-1, NIU 2-1
Overview: This will be a good barometer for how legitimate the Vandals’ surprising start really is. Northern Illinois went toe-to-toe with Wisconsin before losing 28-20, then upended Purdue on the road last week. NIU probably doesn’t have the same talent level as Washington, which handed UI its only loss, but the MAC school might be more well-rounded. “I think it’s the best defense we’ve seen to this date from an overall standpoint,” Idaho offensive coordinator Steve Axman said. These are the sorts of games, against quality opponents on the road, where the Vandals have fallen flat in recent years. But this is a different UI squad, starting with a much-improved passing game and a run defense that’s ranked first in the WAC and 29th in the country. The defense will be tested by NIU, which averages 208 rushing yards per game, led by Me’co Brown’s 6.5 yards per carry and Chad Spann’s six TDs. "We’ve got a great challenge in front of this week,” UI coach Robb Akey said. While this could be a letdown week for the Huskies, coach Joe Kill has done his best to tell his players — and the media — how impressed he's been with Idaho. “When you start out 2-1, you start feeling good,” he said. “It's a very good football team coming in here.”
Now, onto some other thoughts ...
Much has made about NIU's powerful rush attack and whether Idaho can slow it down. It will certainly be a key element to the game, but I'm more interested in watching how the Vandals' running attack does against the Huskies' defense.
NIU doesn't do anything fancy on defense, but they appear to be disciplined and well coached. Can DeMaundray Woolridge, Deonte Jackson and Princeton McCarty -- a trio that's clearly separated itself -- help keep the Huskies' offense off the field by picking up consistent yards on the ground? If so, it will be a huge positive in Idaho's favor. Keep in mind, last week in their upset of Purdue, the Huskies held the ball for a staggering 41 minutes, 40 seconds. There's no way Idaho comes close to winning if that holds true again Saturday.
What to make of the Vandals' ground game? Akey seems fairly pleased, but he'd like it be more consistent. Last week, for instance, ground yards came in spurts; there were long stretches of nothing from the running attack before Woolridge busted off two memorable touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Of course, it didn't help that Woolridge really wasn't on the field in the first half.
Another thing to watch: How will Idaho's up-and-down secondary perform against a steady but unspectacular NIU passing game? Huskies QB Chandler Harnish is accurate and has thrown just one interception this season, but NIU doesn't throw very often and Harnish is just a sophomore (like Ryan Lindley of San Diego State, who had a somewhat shaky day against Idaho last week.) Once again, the biggest boon for UI's secondary would be consistent pressure from the front seven, particulary the defensive line. Jonah Sataraka had a monstrous game last week for UI from his D-tackle slot, and he or Michael Cosgrove or Andre Ferguson/Aaron Lavarius is going to need to make Harnish uncomfortable in the pocket. Of course, the defensive line will also have to worry about an NIU rushing attack that comes in waves and will be hard to suppress.