DeKALB – When Northern Illinois and Idaho last met up in 2009, the Vandals escaped Huskie Stadium with a three-point win, the last time a visiting team to leave DeKalb with a win.
When the Huskies and Vandals meet up at 4 p.m. CT this afternoon, it will be at the Kibbie Dome, not Huskie Stadium. And, NIU is a program that has won two Mid-American Conference titles and a BCS bowl since the teams' last contest, while Idaho has fallen on hard times.
The Vandals have won just nine games the last three seasons combined. Idaho went 1-11 in 2012, and fired head coach Robb Akey with four games remaining.
On top of everything, the Vandals were the odd man out when it came to conference realignment, forcing them to compete as an independent this season thanks to the demise of the Western Athletic Conference.
Thankfully for Idaho, the school will join the Sun Belt next year, but things haven't gone well on the field so far in 2013. In losses at North Texas and Wyoming, Idaho has been outscored, 82-16, and has given up an average of 577.5 yards of total offense.
With what Jordan Lynch and the NIU offense are capable of, there could be a big number next to the visiting team on the scoreboard Saturday afternoon.
However, one thing Huskies head coach Rod Carey pointed out is that Idaho is hungry, playing in its home opener. Carey, who coached at Idaho when he was the offensive line coach at North Dakota in 2010, called the Kibbie Dome a tough place to play.
"I know this, we’ll get their best shot because it’s their first home game and I expect them to come out on cloud nine," Carey said. "I’ve [coached] at the Kibbie Dome before and that place is a hard environment to play (in).“
Paul Petrino – Bobby Petrino's brother – is in his first year as Vandals head coach after spending 2012 as Arkansas' offensive coordinator, and holding the same position at Illinois the previous two seasons.
“I think the struggles that they have encountered, I wouldn’t put myself in Coach Petrino’s shoes to say why, but they’ve been on the road two times and it’s a new coaching staff and they’re just getting their feet wet in those systems in game-like situations," Carey said. "I know it’s a well-coached football team."
Everyone talks about NIU's home win streak, but the Huskies have also won nine in a row on the road. That streak ties NIU with Alabama for the second-best in the nation. Oregon has won 16 consecutive road games.
NIU guard Aidan Conlon said at this point, it doesn't matter where NIU is playing.
“A game is a game, we don’t really make a big difference between home and away," he said. "We prepare the same way, and we just stick to our game plan and try to win, just like any other week.”
NIU'S FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY
1. How many points can NIU put up?
Idaho has been torched its first two contests, giving up 40 points to North Texas Week 1 and 42 to Wyoming last week. The Vandals have given up nearly 600 yards of offense per game. NIU scored 30 points against Iowa in its season opener. Who knows what the Huskies can do this week?
2. Running back production
Starter Cameron Stingily had 12 carries for 47 yards against Iowa. Keith Harris Jr. had five for 30. Akeem Daniels won't play this week because he's still recovering from offseason foot surgery. How much will NIU's top two tailbacks get the ball, and how productive can they be?
3. Tommylee Lewis
Lewis has practiced this week after suffering a sprained ankle against Iowa – after catching five passes for 82 yards and two touchdowns. He could be in for a big year. We'll see if he can outdo his Week 1 performance.
4. Defensive improvements
NIU's defensive performance should improve just based on the opponent they're going against, compared to a Big Ten team. It's not like the group had a terrible game Week 1, but the Huskies did give up more than 200 rushing yards. The unit still only gave up 20 points (the other seven came on a Hawkeyes fumble return) and forced three turnovers.
5. Production from reserves
There's a good chance this game will be all but over by the time the fourth quarter starts, meaning the starters may not play much in the final period. Rod Carey has been tight-lipped about the backup QB spot, but we may find out who replaces Jordan Lynch with the game out of hand. A lot of people have been interested in seeing what freshman wideout Aregeros Turner can do and he may very well get some more reps along with other reserves on both sides of the ball.
– Steve Nitz, firstname.lastname@example.org