The Badgers are 10-1 vs. these Huskies, but they gave us a good scare in 2002 with a 3-point loss (24-21). Moreover, they were pretty close last season against Tennessee (admittedely, a down Tennessee, 13-9), and Minnesota (31-27). And it isn't as though they haven't claimed a pelt or two in their time. Their biggest? They were one of three teams to beat Gator Bowl-winning Maryland (#17 final AP) in 2003 (winners over Virginia Tech; other losses to Florida State and Georgia Tech). The biggest name? They brought down Alabama in 2003 (not the world's best Alabama, but it's still the Crimson Tide).
They return their key players on offense and look to improve on last season's close calls. Those people who see NIU and figure we'll waltz in and out of Camp Randall with an easy opening day win should think twice.
Here to preview his squad through the optimism of August (that's what all these Rose Colored Glasses previews are about afterall), is Mike Breese of the Red and Black Attack:
I know you guys run a run-oriented spread with a solid quarterback. What should we know about him? Is there a credible passing threat to go with the run?
RABA: Yes, that's Chandler Harnish that you are talking about. He started as a redshirt freshman last year and performed admirably for a player with minimal experience. Without a full grasp of the offense, Harnish tried to do too much last year. He led the team in rushing with 539 and 4 TDs on the ground, despite going down in week 2 with an ankle injury and returning in game 6 against Miami OH before he was 100%. Those stats are troublesome, because he needs more help around him in the offense. We've got a good stable of running backs returning and a talented, but extremely young group of wide receivers that need to step up this year. Harnish has a much better grasp of the offense this year and made great strides in the off-season to improve his game. Chandler finished with a 8-9 TD to INT ratio last year and that was because we ran a limited offense as he was still learning to play the game full-time. He is also expected to be the first Sophomore captain for the Huskies in over a decade.
What's the view of the defense with all the new starters (7, right?). Do you expect a rebuilding year? Who are the guys you are excited about that we should know about?
RABA: Coach Jerry Kill rotates our defensive players like crazy, so seven new starters can be a bit deceiving if you look at the history of the players that we are putting in this year to start for our defense. Of course there is going to be an obvious drop off with the departure of Larry English off to the San Diego Chargers in the NFL. The new star on the DL should be Brandon Bice, who was a full-time starter in 2007 and had 6.5 sacks and was named 3rd Team All-MAC last year all while only starting one game. Mike Krause is the consistent starter on the DL [but Mike learned -- literally this morning -- that Krause is out with a heart condition] and replacing Larry English's side is a 25-year-old former Marine in Jake Coffman that has seen significant playing time these past couple years.
At linebacker the name to remember is Alex Kube. He shifted from SS to OLB before last year and slowly began to be a terrorizing force on the defense with 57 tackles last year. On his other side is Cory Hanson, who has good speed and had 37 tackles in 7 starts LY. One of our most productive linebackers and a full-time starter back in 2007 John Tranchitella will be playing behind Kube because there is so much depth at this position. At MLB, Pat Schiller should fill in nice after playing in all 13 games last year an compiling 24 tackles as a redshirt freshman.
In the secondary, the competition was so fierce in the Spring that Mike Sobol who started 12 games last year at SS got beat out by a sophomore in Tracy Wilson. FS David Bryant is the leader of the defense and has been deemed by Coach Kill as his next player with NFL potential. Two starters need to be replaced at CB, but there are some solid players filling in there. Patrick George is a speed demon and has played 24 games the past two years and Kiaree Daniels played in all 13 games LY.So lets just say we don't lose as many starters in reality, but it might take a while for all of them to break in as a unit.I know you guys lost a lot of close ones last season to quality teams. Was that the high-water mark, or do you see marquis wins over Wisconsin, Purdue, etc.?
RABA: Was that the high-water mark? Absolutely not. Last year NIU was only outgained by 31 ypg in a pair of 4-pt losses to both Minnesota and Tennessee. Our starting QB was out for the Tennessee game and we were still in that game despite not having much of an offense to boot. If Harnish would have started in that game, then that would have been a win in Knoxville. Our fans are starving right now for another season like 2003, when we beat a nationally-ranked Maryland team and Alabama in Tuscaloosa. It's not like we haven't been to the top in the past and it is always our goal to perform and win these games against BCS schools.
This season is interesting, because we are supposed to be a better team than last year. It is only the second year in Coach Kill's tenure, but we have a young team that isn't afraid of anything. NIU was thrown to the wolves last year and its not like we haven't tussled with the big boys before. This year should be interesting, because both Purdue and Wisconsin have been predicted to finish in the middle to bottom-half of the Big 10 by all the pundits out there. Usually we have to face schools we have no chance against like #4 Michigan in 2005 or #1 Ohio State in 2006. It's our best chance to beat one, if not two Big 10/BCS schools in a long, long time.
What's the game plan to win at Madison at night? Do you see it happening?
RABA: The gameplan will be the typical Coach Kill game plan: run the ball, run the ball some more then some play action. If I'm not mistaken, this is the best strategy because the Badgers have some pretty big losses on both the DL and LB units this year. Then on defense um...stop John Clay? Is that even possible? I think we have some players to match up with Garrett Graham, but I think our CBs might have some trouble keeping Gilreath, Toon & whoever else in check for most of the game.
Our last (and only) win against a Big 10 team? Wisconsin in 1988. I'm sure a bunch of the players want revenge for that mauling back in 2007 when half our team was injured. Do I see a win happening? I think it will be a lot closer than people are anticipating.
I agree, it will be closer than people on our side of the border want to believe.