DeKALB – Media outlets aren’t the only ones building up Saturday’s Mid-American Conference matchup between West Division-favorite Northern Illinois (3-2, 1-0 MAC) and East Division-favorite Temple (4-1, 1-0 MAC).
While coaches have cautiously consented that Saturday will be a battle between two of the stronger MAC teams, the NIU players spoke more liberally about the significance of a Week 6 matchup that many predict will reoccur Dec. 3 in the MAC Championship game in Detroit.
“I think the preseason predictions are pretty right on,” NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish said during Tuesday’s news conference at the Yordon Center. “By looking at the records, you can tell we’re in the upper-echelon of our conference. There’s a couple other good teams there too, but this is definitely an exciting matchup and we’ll see how we match up on Saturday.”
NIU defensive tackle D.J. Pirkle echoed Harnish’s confident proclamation.
“So far, we’ve proven what we can do, and Temple’s proven what they can do,” Pirkle said. “I would definitely say, like Chandler said, we’re one of the top two teams in the MAC, like Temple. It’ll be a great game.”
NIU coach Jerry Kill hasn’t exactly extinguished the hype around NIU’s first home game in four weeks, calling Temple “as good as anyone we’ve played, including Minnesota and Illinois.”
But Kill said his staff will not change its weekly preparation plan for the Owls.
“When we go out and play Temple you can’t hype it up as the biggest thing in the world because you got to go the next week and the next week,” Kill said. “We’re looking for consistency. We’re going to go out and practice like we always have.”
Temple coach Al Golden also has sent mixed signals.
Golden, whose team has beaten Villanova, Central Michigan, Connecticut and Army and lost by nine points to Penn State, said Saturday’s game against the Huskies, who beat Minnesota in Week 4, will be the “biggest challenge of the year” for the Owls.
But like Kill, Golden preached an it’s-just-another-game mentality.
“You can’t look ahead and you can’t get into the sound bites of what the significance of this game is,” Golden said. “This is a good team and a tough place to play. We’re going to have to summon all our energy that we have to try to go up there and win.”
Wilson likely out: NIU starting safety Tracy Wilson, the team’s leading tackler through two games, likely will miss his third consecutive start Saturday with a groin injury suffered during a Week 3 loss to Illinois.
“I don’t think there’s any way he’ll play this week,” Kill said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that’ll happen, but probably not.”
Senior Mike Sobol has replaced Wilson as the starter for the past two games, earning defensive back of the week honors from NIU coaches in a Week 5 win against Akron. Garrett Barnas and freshman Jimmie Ward also have earned playing time.
“It’s a good thing we have a little depth, or we would really be in trouble,” Kill said.
“We want to get him back as soon as we can,” Pirkle said, “but we just got to move on without him and we need guys to step up.”