Twenty years after their first and only meeting – a game played before many NIU students were alive – the NIU Huskies and the Arkansas Razorbacks will battle again in Fayetteville.
Arkansas prevailed in the Nov. 12, 1994, contest, but not by much. The final score was 30-27.
Coach Rod Carey’s Huskies, who are 3-0 and still riding a nation-leading winning streak on the road with 17 consecutive victories, will face their toughest challenge so far this season at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 20.
Believers in coincidence, take note: Sept. 20 is the 11th anniversary of NIU’s lone defeat of a Southeastern Conference opponent – the legendary day when Joe Novak’s boys marched into Tuscaloosa and knocked off the then-No. 21 Alabama Crimson Tide, 19-16.
“It’s going to be a great environment going down there. Someone told me that they are expecting to sell out … it will be loud, and it will be a great environment for our team,” says Carey, whose team is preparing for the noise.
“We’re going to have the speakers cranked up to about level 25, and I’ll come off of the practice field with a roaring headache, like I always do. Other coaches will, too. You have to practice it because it’s going to be loud, so we’ll get the speakers cranked up and we’ll play a bunch of music that I don’t understand or know. But it will be loud, I know that.”
Other than the volume, players say, nothing is different on the practice field.
“We’re not going to change anything just because it’s an SEC team,” says defensive tackle Donovan Gordon.
“We still go through our routine: focus on the basics and fundamentals, steps and placements. Everything stays the same,” Gordon adds. “They have a pretty good offensive line – they’re big and they move people – so we are definitely going to have to play with our technique. It’s going to be big in this game. That will be very key.”
“We start each week with the basic and fundamentals, understanding the defense, and then do the physical part of the game and throughout the rest of the week it’s all mental,” linebacker Boomer Mays confirms. “We just have to pull everything together the same as every week.”
Saturday’s challenges for NIU are plenty, Carey says.
The Razorbacks, who finished 3-9 last season but are already 2-1 this fall under Coach Bret Bielema with a road victory over Texas Tech last week, boast “three of the finest running backs in the nation.”
“They’re big, they’re physical, they’re strong, they’re quick, they can jump cut, they’re one-footed cutters,” the Huskie boss says. “They use the third leg well when they get their legs cut out from under them, great balance, run with power.
Quarterback Brandon Allen “can run around and make some plays. The wide receivers are big, fast, athletic, just how you’d expect an SEC offense to look. They know who they are and they understand how their team feeds off of that.”
And then there’s sophomore offensive tackle Dan Skipper, who stands 6 feet 10 inches tall and weighs in at 326.
“That’s a big boy,” Carey says. “Defensive football doesn’t change, no matter if the O-line is 320 or 340 or 250. It doesn’t matter. You have to play square football. You have to be underneath their pads. You have to move your feet. You have to be able the shed blocks and tackle.”
Defensively, Carey says, Arkansas is “probably as good a front four as we’ve seen around here in a few years. They’re big, long, athletic, can run around, good quickness, good first steps in the ground, good second steps in the ground, good hand placement on pads, and good pad level.”
Carey’s compliments even extend to special teams. “Their punter, when he rolls right, he kicks with his right foot,” he says. “When he rolls left, he kicks with his left foot. Never seen anything like that in my life before.”
On the NIU side of the ledger, quarterback Drew Hare will start the game, linebacker Jamaal Bass is likely to return and tailback Cameron Stingily will continue making fans forget about the injury that kept him out of fall camp.
“Cam’s looked good,” Carey says. “His pad level is dropping. His ball security has been good. His feet look alive. I think he’s responding well. It’s going to be a process as we go here. I kind of always say that game reps count for three practice reps, so he’s catching up pretty quick.”
Stingily calls himself “100 percent” back in action.
“I feel like I’m a little stronger now because I didn’t get banged up like everyone else did in camp,” he says.
“I’m a little more comfortable than last game because I was able to put some things on film and now I’m able to take them off. I guess that you can say with UNLV. I was more confident with myself and my reads than Northwestern. I was rusty, and that was my first time really getting hit, so now that I got that out of the way I feel pretty confident.”
Fans can watch the game on ESPNU or listen on AM 560 WIND from Chicago or WCPT 92.5 FM from DeKalb. For a different experience, head to the Carl Sandburg Auditorium of the Holmes Student Center: A free showing of “Frozen” will precede the game on the big screen.
Saturday closes out a three-game non-conference road trip versus teams from the Big Ten, Mountain West and SEC for NIU; after a bye week, the Huskies return home for three consecutive Mid-American Conference contests.