Northern Illinois' strengths, weaknesses and players to watch
Team: Northern Illinois
Offensively, Northern Illinois' greatest strength so far this season has been its passing game.
Though quarterback Jordan Lynch is quickly gaining the reputation of a dual-threat player (he's averaged 101 rushing yards per game), he's been most impressive hitting deep plays in the air. NIU has 10, 30-plus-yard passing plays already this season (T-10th nationally) and also is averaging 8.8 yards per pass (24th nationally).
NIU also has performed extremely well on third downs, converting 22 of 37 (59 percent, fifth nationally).
Defensively, NIU's strengths are up front and in the secondary. The defensive line has racked up nine sacks in three games, which is even more impressive considering that Army had only four official pass attempts in last week's contest.
The Huskies also bring back five experienced players in their secondary and have broken up or intercepted 14 of 73 passes against them this season ... a strong ratio considering the low number of passes they've had against them.
The Huskies offensive line is about as inexperienced as you can get. In NIU's first game against Iowa, it went out with five brand-new starters on the O-line. Since then, Jared Volk has returned from injury, but even he only had two starts a year ago.
That inexperience hasn't hurt the Huskies too much in the passing game yet (five sacks compared to 72 passing attempts), but it does appear to be affecting NIU's ability to run the ball with its backs. Take away Lynch's rushing numbers, and the rest of the team has 69 carries for 269 yards (3.9 yards/carry). NIU had 28 non-Lynch rushing yards in the opener against Iowa and 48 non-Lynch rushing yards against Army last week, with the Huskies' lead back Leighton Settle rushing just five times for 19 yards last Saturday.
Defensively, NIU has struggled to stop the run against triple-option (Army) and non-triple-option teams.
The Huskies actually have been solid at limiting big plays (they haven't allowed a 30-plus-yard rush all year), but teams have had success grinding it out against them. NIU's opponents have 22, 10-yard rushes against it (T-115th nationally) while averaging 4.1 yards per attempt.
This also shows up in time of possession, as opponents have racked up an average of 37 minutes and 9 seconds of possession time against NIU this season.
Players to Watch
NIU coach Dave Doeren has described quarterback Jordan Lynch (No. 6) as "a linebacker playing quarterback." Lynch will be the main one to watch, as NIU is reliant upon him for almost all the offense. The 6-foot, 216-pound junior has completed 63 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and just two interceptions. He's also shown the ability to make the big play with his feet, as he posted an 88-yard touchdown run against Army last week.
Senior receiver Martel Moore (No. 1) is the one Lynch will look to for almost all of his deep throws. The 6-foot, 183-pounder already has six, 20-plus-yard receptions, which ties him for sixth in the nation. So far, Moore has more than double the receptions (15) of any other NIU receiver while contributing 229 receiving yards and three TDs.
Senior defensive end Alan Baxter (No. 90) has been the most productive player on the defensive line. The 6-foot, 240-pounder has five tackles for loss — including three sacks — while playing against run-heavy opponents so far this year.
Finally, KU quarterback Dayne Crist will have to look out for junior safety Jimmie Ward (No. 15). The 5-foot-11, 192-pounder — in addition to leading the team with 33 tackles — also has broken up five passes (T-sixth nationally) and has intercepted another. That's about as active as a safety can be through three games.
If Weis' gameplan last week was to try to pick on TCU's pass defense (not a bad strategy considering the numbers), then the gameplan should be the exact opposite this week.
KU's best chance to win against Northern Illinois will be to run, run, then run some more against a Huskies rush defense that has shown some flaws.
Not only that, NIU can play to its strengths defensively when it knows a pass is coming. With good pass-rushing ends and a talented secondary, KU will want to avoid third-and-longs as much as possible.
Though a few KUsports.com staff members are picking KU for the upset, I'm not brave enough to predict it. The biggest reason is simply recent history.
You might have already heard this, but the last time KU won a road game, Kale Pick was a quarterback, Toben Opurum was a running back, Bradley McDougald was a receiver and Daymond Patterson was a cornerback. That was a long time ago.
The Jayhawks have played so poorly on the road for so many games, I've been trained to believe that when they go outside Memorial, they're probably just not going to play well.
Also, to me, NIU looks like a better overall team than KU that gets the benefit of being on its home field. That adds up to a 10-point win.
Prediction: Northern Illinois 38, Kansas 28
Hawk to Rock: This seems like a game set up for Taylor Cox's skills. KU will need to set up manageable second- and third-down situations, and Cox has been KU's best back at getting positive gains out of small openings. Based on the matchup, don't be surprised if James Sims jumps right into the mix as well, as he's the same kind of runner. As for Cox, I'll go with 110 yards rushing and a TD against NIU.