MADISON, Wis. — The natural tendency among fans is to scan Wisconsin’s football schedule, notice the Badgers are playing a directional school in the season opener from the lower-tier Football Championship Subdivision and instantly peg the home team as winners in a runaway.
But just hold your horses. A closer look revels Northern Iowa isn’t exactly the same FCS patsy Wisconsin has played in previous years.
When No. 12 Wisconsin takes on UNI at 2:30 p.m. CT Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, the Panthers actually will be ranked higher than the Badgers in their respective preseason poll — No. 9, according to the Sports Network FCS poll.
Granted, nobody is going to mistake UNI for USC, but the Panthers are plenty good enough to keep Saturday’s game competitive.
“We don’t really need to educate our players very much on respecting opponents,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said. “UNI is not intimidated in any way, shape or form by big stadiums. They’re used to playing in any type of crowds.”
Last season, Northern Iowa finished 10-3 and reached the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs. And several Panthers return from that team, which nearly upset BCS opponent Iowa State in the season opener before falling, 20-19.
UNI brings back four starters on its offensive line, and collectively the unit has played in 99 college football games. The line features left tackle Tim Sauer (30 games played), left guard Dan Kruger (22 games), center Brian Palangi (25 games at UNI, 11 at Northeastern University), right guard Jack Rummels (nine games) and right tackle Ryan Bingaman (two games).
In the backfield, the Panthers will rely on sophomore running back David Johnson, who rushed for 822 yards and nine touchdowns last season. Senior tailback Carlos Anderson, one of the team’s co-captains, rushed for 410 yards a year ago.
“They present a lot of challenges,” Badgers co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge said. “They’ll be in spread-type schemes. They’ll go fast tempo, they’ll slow it down, they’ll put two backs and two tight ends on the field. Hopefully, our kids know what they’re up against.”
UNI’s biggest question mark is at quarterback because the Panthers will start redshirt freshman Sawyer Kollmorgen. He beat out expected starter Jared Lanpher, who missed time in fall camp with a sports hernia.
Although Kollmorgen has never started a college game, he is used to playing in big-game atmospheres. His last game as a starter came in 2010 as a Jenks (Okla.) High School senior. That game was the 6A state championship against fellow powerhouse Union in front of an estimated 12,000 fans at Oklahoma State’s stadium. Union defeated Jenks, 50-47.
Kollmorgen first made his case for UNI’s starting job during the team’s spring game by completing 17 of 28 passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns.
“I’ve played plenty of freshman quarterbacks in the Big Ten that I’ve said before the game, ‘Oh it’s this kid’s first year,’ ” Badgers defensive end Brendan Kelly said. “He’s starting for a reason. There’s other quarterbacks on that roster. So he obviously has to be good enough to beat them out.”
Northern Iowa should represent a much tougher test than Wisconsin’s six previous FCS opponents during Bielema’s tenure as head coach. Wisconsin outscored those teams — South Dakota, Austin Peay, Wofford, Cal Poly, The Citadel and Western Illinois — by a margin of 288-103. In the past three seasons, that score is 173-27.
The Panthers have been ranked in the FCS top 25 for 94 consecutive polls, which dates back nearly eight years. But two games in particular during that span should keep Wisconsin’s attention.
UNI’s 20-19 loss at Iowa State last season is one. So is Northern Iowa’s 17-16 loss at Iowa in 2009, when the Panthers had two field-goal attempts blocked in the final seconds. Iowa went on to win the Orange Bowl that season.
“A lot of our players played against Iowa a few years back as freshmen,” Northern Iowa coach Mark Farley said. “They’ve been in these situations. They kind of know what to expect.”
Farley said his biggest concern is simply dealing with Wisconsin’s offensive talent — not the 80,000 raucous fans that will fill Camp Randall Stadium. Running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy candidate, as well as the Badgers’ stout offensive line are of particular worry to Farley.
Specifically, he noted Wisconsin scoring 83 points against Indiana two years ago, 42 against Michigan State in last year’s Big Ten championship game and 38 against Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
“They’re powerful,” Farley said. “They’re as dominant a football team as I’ve seen on film. … You look at the numbers they put up against extremely good football teams, talent-wise, coaching-wise, scheme-wise, to sit here and say you’re going to run the race with Wisconsin, that’s a wish list.
“We just have to do what we do to the best of our ability and let’s see what happens.”