MADISON - If you think the Badgers have had injury problems, look no further than Joe Novak’s Northern Illinois Huskies.
Currently, 13 starters have missed at least one game due to injury, 20 different players on the depth chart have missed at least one game, eight of the injuries have been season-ending and only eight players (four on offense and four on defense) have started every game this season.
Two of Northern Illinois’ top three wide receivers and its three op tight ends have missed time. Last week, starting quarterback Dan Nicholson didn't play because of an ankle injury, which contributed to sending the Huskies to their third-straight loss.
Northern Illinois (1-6, 0-4 Mid-American Conference) will look to overcome its injuries when the Huskies make their first visit to Camp Randall Stadium in five years when they take on the 5-2 Badgers.
From 2002 through '04, the Huskies won 27 of 36 games and won four MAC West titles from 2001 to 05, which was a stark turnaround from Novak’s first three seasons (NIU was 3-30 and had a dubious 23-game losing streak). With NIU’s 8-12 mark the last two seasons, the Huskies seemingly are back in a rebuilding phase.
"A lot of people are really disappointed," Novak said "I am, too. You want expectations to be high. But what it has done, personally, is that winning isn't quite as much fun as it used to be. I think any coach can tell you this … and losing is that much tougher."
Despite the injuries, Northern Illinois has lost plenty of close games in 2007 – losing three games by a total of eight points. Although the offense ranked last in conference, scoring 19 points a game, the Huskies defense has been stout, allowing only 24.9 points per game.
"Our kids are competing, that's all we can ask," Novak said. "You hope they can pull one off here and get over the hump."
Wisconsin could see a lot of young players earn serious playing time Northern Illinois, especially if the game is not close in the second half.
Sophomore Kim Royston has seen split time at strong safety with starter Aubrey Pleasant, freshman Aaron Henry replaced Allen Langford last week after the junior was pulled in the third quarter and Culmer St. Jean could see time filling in for Elijah Hodge, who has struggled to stay healthy, could all see significant time.
Additionally, running back Zach Brown and receiver Kyle Jefferson have earned prominent roles filling in for key personnel (Lance Smith who is suspended for all road games and Luke Swan who is out for the season with a torn hamstring).
"The three guys that jumped out to me as I watched film on Saturday were Kyle Jefferson, Zach Brown and Aaron Henry — the way that they just approached the game and the way they competed," Bielema said. "So, it's a positive for the future in that regards."
Recognized as the team’s offensive player of the week against Penn State, Jefferson has played more snaps than any true freshman offensively and his results are not reflective of a first-year player. Jefferson finished the game with six receptions for 124 yards, both career highs and leads all freshmen nationally with an average of 19.7 yards per catch.
In his short stint on offense, Jefferson is third on the team in receiving with 16 receptions for 315 yards and two touchdowns.
“The circumstances that he’s came about to play were ones that we didn’t like, but obviously, he’s taking the most of that opportunity,” Bielema said. “We’re excited about him, and he’ll continue to grow.”
Jefferson could get a boost this weekend if senior Paul Hubbard is able to play. Hubbard, who has not played since hurting his knee in week two against UNLV, practiced in full pads for the first time this week. The original diagnosis on Hubbard that he would be out six-to-eight weeks, which would make this weekend the earliest that he feasibly could return.
"He's a little bit ahead of schedule," Bielema said. “He’s been cleared for practice, but you don’t know how his body is going to respond because this is a little bit ahead of schedule.”
After two straight losses, Wisconsin seems destined for trouble, especially with the Badgers having to travel to No.1 Ohio State and hosting Michigan in the home finale. Bielema maintains that Wisconsin, despite the recent hardships, is focused on becoming bowl eligible this weekend and retaining the program’s ‘1-0- mentality.
“The season is a journey and the more you focus on the end of the journey, the further off you’ll become,” Bielema said. “The easiest answers are right in front of you. There’s nothing more in this program that we believe in than a ‘1-0’ mentality.”
Northern Illinois (1-6) vs. Wisconsin (5-2)
Date/Time - Saturday, Oct. 20, at 11:00 a.m CDT
Stadium – Camp Randall Stadium, Madison (FieldTurf / 80,321)
Television - Big Ten Network (Wayne Larrivee, Charles Davis, Charissa Thompson)
Radio - Wisconsin Radio Network (Matt Lepay, Mike Lucas)
Series – Wisconsin leads 9-1
Last Meeting - Wisconsin won, 24-21, on Sept. 14, 2002 in Madison
The Badgers, who were 21½-point favorites, needed a 2-yard run by quarterback Brooks Bollinger with 1 minute, 21 seconds to play to pull out a 24-21 victory. No. 22 UW was out gained 455-275 and allowed 10 sacks against the Huskies' blitzing defense in the team’s last meeting.
All 10 games in the series have been played in Madison, but the Badgers will travel to Northern Illinois in October 2009.
Wisconsin needed a two-point conversion with 2:09 left to beat the Huskies, 18-17, in 1992.
Including the bowl game, UW has won 13 straight games against non-conference opponents.
If Wisconsin can’t run the ball against the team, the Badgers are in real trouble. Plain and simple, the Badgers finally dominate an opponent from start to finish … I hope.