The first game of the year matches the Army Black Knights (Sagarin 108, 2010 7-6) and the Mid-American Conference West Northern Illinois Huskies (Sagarin 75, 2010, 11-3.) The Cadets lead the all-time series 1-0, with a 21-14 win in 1992. This will be a very good game to get a sense of Army's undersized defense as Northern Illinois brings last year's 7th best rushing attack behind a very big offensive line. Both teams are looking to start the year 1-0 and begin their march to another bowl season.
Army brings back their entire coaching staff, but loses 11 starters from the 7-6 Armed Forces Bowl Winner.
For the first time in many years at West Pont, the offense should be the strength of this team. Junior quarterback Trent Steelman (6-0, 204) returns after missing spring practice with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. He is back, healthy and ready to lead this offense to some big numbers.
Jared Hassin (6-3, 235) is the driving force of the offense. Last year, he rushed for 4 straight 100 yard games until defenses started to key on him. He finished with 1,013 yards and 9 TDs. He is big and fast, but he tends to fumble. Hopefully the staff has worked with him over the spring to lower his shoulders and not leave the ball so exposed as he blasts through the defensive line.
The concentration on Hassin should create room for Junior slot back Malcolm Brown (5-11, 180). He rushed for a career-high 343 yards and four touchdowns on 62 carries. He is probably the only SB with the speed to take the corners. If he can stay healthy for the entire year, Army may have 2 rushers reach 1,000 yards.
Army lost 4 starters on the offensive line. However, it looks as though the new line may actually be improved.
"That was a big question, because we only have one returning starter," Steelman said. "But those guys really developed. I think we could be more explosive and bigger [this season]. That's exciting."
The returning starter is junior left guard Frank Allen (6-4, 275). He will be joined by senior Joe Bailey (6-2, 270), senior left tackle Brad Kelly (6-5, 250) juniors A.J. Mackey (6-1, 266) and Parker Whitten (6-2, 235) are also listed atop the depth chart.
On defense, Army's interior defensive line is the primary concern, but it isn't the only one. The bandit position and one of the defensive end positions will probably be manned by players who haven't experienced a collegiate snap.
The only returning starter on the defensive line is junior defensive end Jarrett Mackey (6-2, 230) and will be backed up by sophomore Quentin Kantaris (6-2, 215), who played in nine games last year. At defensive end, Army will go with either sophomore Corey Watts (5-11, 220) or sophomore Clayton Keller (6-2, 220).
Steve Erzinger (6-1, 222) will be moved to middle linebacker; last year he made 76 tackles last year, including 4.5 tackles for loss, and breaking up five passes. Brian Zalneraitis (6-2, 220) earned the starting Bandit position and will be backed up by Chad Littlejohn (6-0, 234), who started seven games at linebacker last year.
"Safety was a big concern," Erzinger said. "We lost Donovan Travis, who was like a general out there for us. Safety is a huge position to fill, but both those guys did a great job. I'm not sure how the coaches are looking at it, but from my perspective, I'm comfortable with both those guys back there."
The cornerback position will bring the most experience to the defense. Junior Josh Jackson (6-0, 185), who had 33 tackles, an interception that he returned 59 yards and two pass break-ups will start on one side. While seniors Antuan Aaron (5-9, 188) and senior James Whittington (5-10, 186) will share time on the other.
At Northern Illinois Former Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Doeren is the new coach at Northern Illinois. Only one coach from Jerry Kill's staff has remained.
The Husky Offense looks tough, led by fifth year senior Chandler Harnish (6-2,221), who completed 65% of his passes for 2,530 yards and 21 TDs last year. Senior Jasmin Hopkins (5-9,172) will attempt to replace their outstanding Running Back Chad Spann who ran for 1,388 yards and 22 TDs. Four receivers return in Senior Willie Clark (6-1, 210), junior Martel Moore (6-2, 182) senior Nathan Palmer (5-11, 197) and junior Perez Ashford (5-10, 180) and all caught at least 19 passes last year. However, the real strength of this team is in their offensive line. Redshirt senior Trevor Olson (6-6, 302), who has started 40 consecutive games at left tackle, was chosen NIU's lineman of the year in addition to making the All-MAC first team. Redshirt senior center Scott Wedige (6-4, 314). Redshirt senior right guard Joe Pawlak (6-5, 301), and Redshirt senior Keith Otis (6-4, 327), Redshirt junior Logan Pegram (6-3, 309) made 10 starts at left guard.
The Huskies graduated three productive seniors who started every game in 2010.
On defense, last year's starting linebackers have been replaced. One graduated (Alex Kube), one was shot (Devon Butler – who is not a soldier in Afghanistan) and one left for personal reasons (Tyrone Clark). The Huskies also lost first-team All-MAC cornerback Chris Smith and veteran safeties Mike Sobol and Tracy Wilson.
Who is favored?
The Huskies are favored by 10 points.
What to look for?
Army will get very creative on offense – holding the ball for long possessions and scoring will be the key to this game and the season. Look for a good dose of Hassin and several passes from Steelman early. Hopefully, this will open up the outside for Brown. They are going against a new defense with a new coaching staff and catching them off-guard will be there chance.
Of course the fun match-up will be on defense. NIU brings back their quarterback without last years high profile running back and receiver. It would seem as though they will pound away at Army's defensive line and try to step on the pesky Cadet Defense.
To win Army must win the time of possession battle decisively and score often. There is reason for hope that the offense will be effective and productive. However, even the most optimistic of Army fans has to be alarmed by the shocking lack of size on Army's defense. Many of us thought Todd Berry's teams hardly resembled Division I outfits because the players were downright puny, but this unit makes those teams look like the Nebraska Cornhuskers. If you look at the way NIU's offense matches up against this defense, it is difficult to see any way Army will be able to stop them. They must be extremely creative, they will certainly have to gamble a great deal, and they will somehow have to get some stops and turnovers. This is probably too much to ask for the Cadets, but they do have a chance. Perhaps the NIU coaches will simply overlook the size mismatch in the trenches and refuse to run the ball. You never know.
Final Score – Army 28 – Northern Illinois 35
Game will be shown on ESPN3.