Huskies vs. Wildcats: Wishbone put to test

By Dan Moran

Saturday, in the affluent North Shore hamlet of Evanston, Ill., the NIU Huskie football team will face its biggest challenge of the 1987 season.

The Northwestern Wildcats are the sole Big 10 team, and the only Big Name, on the 1987 Huskie slate. NIU has never beaten a Big 10 team in its history, and is 0-3 against Northwestern.

But then, when was the last time the NIU Huskies entered a Big 10 matchup with the third-best offense in the nation? And, although this is the Wildcats’ home opener, they are still 0-2 and having problems with their offense.

NIU head coach Jerry Pettibone, true to form, enters the game with carefully measured optimism.

“It’s a great challenge,” Pettibone said. “They’re a Big 10 team. To go up there and play as well as we can will be a big test for us. I’m confident we’ll have an excellent week of practice and be ready to play.”

NU head coach Francis Peay said while it’s “a little too early in the year to talk about ‘must wins,'” his squad won’t take the Huskies lightly.

“They have, I think, a very excellent offensive football team,” Peay said. “They’re going to come in here and we’re going to have to buckle our chin-straps, because they’re going to come right at us. But we’re not going to panic, or anything of that nature.”

Peay was understating the obvious when he said “it’ll be good to come back home and be in Dyche Stadium.” The Wilcats are coming off a 28-3 loss to Missouri, having dropped their season opener at Duke 31-16 a week earlier.

Peay said the “big problem” has been the offense, which has scored only one touchdown thus far. The Huskies should be interested to note that Northwestern’s opponents have outrushed the Wildcats 537-154.

Although the ‘Cats have had some success through the air, having outgained their opponents 503-296, Pettibone said “I feel they’ll try to run on us first.” The Huskies will come in ranked eighth in the nation in team rushing defense.

“They’ve got a big, strong offensive line, and most of them are veteran players,” Pettibone said. “I’m sure they’ll try to run right at us and establish the run and set up the pass, especially because of the success our first two opponents have had throwing the ball.”

Pettibone hit on one of the game’s keys—NIU has to stop Wildcat quarterback Mike Greenfield. The Huskies gave up 606 yards passing against the formidable air attacks of Lamar and Western Michigan. Four key interceptions last week saved the NIU cause.

Greenfield, a 6-foot-2 senior from Elmwood Park, Ill., is described by Pettibone as “more of a scrambling type” than NIU’s first two opposing quarterbacks. Greenfield’s favorite receiver is split end George Jones, who has caught nine passes for 192 yards and a touchdown.

But in order for the Wildcats to establish their offense, they have to stop the Huskie wishbone, which comes in second in the nation in rushing yardage with a 373.5 yard average. Although Northwestern faced a wishbone-type offense against Missouri last week, Pettibone said NIU will give NU a different look.

“Missouri does run a different type of wishbone,” Pettibone said. “While they’re more of a power wishbone, we’re more finesse.”

Peay still has a good idea of how to collar the NIU rushing attack.

“Obviously, you’ve got to stop the triple-option,” Peay said. “You’ve got to limit the success of the fullback up the middle, and then Marshall Taylor is an electrifying quarterback. You have to be very sound across the board.

“It’s a big guessing game. They’ll try to outnumber us in an area, and you want to have more people in that area. The wishbone forces you to play solid defensively every play.”

And so, in a nutshell, NIU will have to have another big offensive day and some more big plays on defense to keep up with the Wildcats, while Northwestern needs to get its offense in gear. And then there are the intangibles.

“Confidence,” Pettibone said, “is so important in football and in business and anything you do in life. Our kids will be sky-high this week.”