DeKALB – Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill compares the Huskies' early-season schedule to the Iditarod, an Alaskan sled dog race covering more than 1,150 miles of frozen wilderness.
The Huskies from DeKalb face their own challenging course. NIU will travel more than 2,500 miles roundtrip as it plays four of its first five games away from Huskie Stadium in a zig-zag across the Midwest.
That journey starts with a 300-mile course to Ames, Iowa, to play Big 12 foe Iowa State on Thursday night.
The Cyclones are one of three teams from automatic-qualifying BCS conferences the Huskies will play during the first four weeks. NIU also plays two Big Ten teams: Illinois on Sept. 18 and Minnesota on Sept. 25.
"We've got a tough schedule," Kill said at his Monday news conference at the Yordon Center. "What's it mean? It gets you prepared for the conference. I would rather play them early and get our team better and play against tremendous competition."
Kill isn't a fan of the 2010 schedule. But most of the non-conference slate was predetermined before he accepted the NIU job.
Kill said he wanted to schedule a home game during the week of the Minnesota game but that the only willing and available opponents were Football Championship Series teams. With FCS program North Dakota already scheduled to visit DeKalb on Sept. 11, NIU didn't want to weaken its bowl-bid resumé, so it booked with the Gophers.
"You're caught," Kill said. "Do I like [the non-conference schedule]? Absolutely not. But do I have to live with it? You bet. I've approached it like this: We will find out mentally where we're at certainly early.
"It's a great challenge for us, and we're looking forward to it."
Returning 19 starters, the Huskies are familiar with the early-season trips to premier conference foes. NIU narrowly lost at Tennessee (13-9) in 2008 and Wisconsin (28-20 loss) in 2009, and last year pulled off a 28-21 upset victory at Purdue.
So the Huskies say they can handle the 55,000-person Big 12 crowd at Jack Trice Stadium on Thursday.
"I don't know if you can really prepare for it," senior defensive tackle D.J. Pirkle said. "In the end it doesn't matter where you play, it's just a game if we're playing here or playing there. Maybe it'll be a couple more people if we're playing there, but it's the same field, same everything. So you can't really let going to these (automatic-qualifying) BCS schools really affect how you play whatsoever."
The Huskies' road is tough. It could be grueling if some balls don't bounce their way.
But Kill said the goal of the non-conference endurance test is to come out an improved team, healthy enough to make a run in the Mid-American Conference.
"(It's) how you mentally handle it," Kill said. "If you win, you got to handle it. If you lose, you got to handle it. You have to keep your players grounded because at the end of the day, you're trying to win the conference championship."
QB gameday announcement: Kill is not giving Iowa State any information it doesn't need. That includes who will be starting under center for the Huskies.
Juniors Chandler Harnish and DeMarcus Grady and redshirt freshman Jordan Lynch have competed for the starting quarterback job through camp.
"I'm not going to name a starter until gametime," Kill said. "It's nothing against [the media]. A (defensive) coordinator's going to prepare a little bit different for whoever it's going to be. We don't want to reveal that."
Kill said he won't play three quarterbacks and that four could travel to Ames. Asked if he could play two quarterbacks, Kill said: "Don't know that either. Probably not. We'll just have to see what the situation is."