The Northern Illinois football team will play a game at Soldier Field for the third time Saturday.
The Huskies lost the 2007 season opener to Iowa, 16-3, and Wisconsin earned a 49-7 win over NIU in Chicago last season.
The difference between those contests and NIU’s game against Iowa on Saturday is that this time, almost the entire roster will have experience playing at the home of the Bears.
NIU coach Dave Doeren held a walkthrough last week so his players could get even more comfortable with the stadium.
“For all of our returning players, they’ve all been there twice,” Doeren said during Monday’s Mid-American Conference coaches teleconference. “So it helps. There’s definitely going to be less of an awe factor, I think, for our guys, being in those locker rooms. It is a pretty inspiring arena when you get down on the field and you’re driving in, and all the stuff that Chicago brings. Obviously the skyline in the background, it’s pretty awesome.
“So just to have been there a couple of times, I think that will help.”
Forty-three of NIU’s players are from the Chicago metropolitan area, 14 of them from the city, including starting quarterback Jordan Lynch, who attended Mount Carmel High School on the city’s South Side.
Doeren said he likes that his players will get the chance to play at Soldier Field because many of them rooted for the Bears while growing up.
“Playing at Soldier Field is really a special thing for our team, being close to 55 miles from Soldier Field here on our campus. A lot of our players,  of them are Illinois residents growing up, and the Bears, for many of them, [are] their team,” Doeren said. “So the chance to be in the locker room that their heroes were in and be on the field that many of the players they grew up watching on television and wanting to be like [played], I think it’s a great experience.”
Doeren also said he thinks the game offers a good experience for NIU fans who live in the Chicago area.
“It’s also just a tremendous venue for our fans, and the teams that we have played there,” Doeren said. “It’s a great venue for a college game.”
Broncos open in Champaign: NIU hasn’t had many opportunities to play in-state opponent Illinois. The Huskies’ visit to Champaign two years ago, which resulted in a 28-22 loss, was their first game against the Fighting Illini since 2001. NIU doesn’t have any future contests against Illinois scheduled.
Western Michigan, on the other hand, has had plenty of chances against a team NIU fans wish they had the chance to see more of as a nonconference opponent. The Broncos, who open the season in Champaign, hosted the Illini at Detroit’s Ford Field in 2008, and also played at Illinois last year. In 2016, the Illini will actually make a visit to Kalamazoo.
Familiar face in Toledo: Former NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz left DeKalb after last season to become Toledo’s defensive coordinator. The Rockets struggled on defense in 2011, ranking 10th in the Mid-American Conference in scoring defense and seventh in total defense.
First-year Toledo coach Matt Campbell said the Rockets have improved defensive players this year, something that will make Matukewicz’s job a lot easier.
“I really believe we’ve got great, talented defensive players on that side of the football,” Campbell said. “I think the most important thing for us is that we better do a great job of tackling and do a great job of not giving up the big play. And I think if we do that, I think we’ve got the players and the talent on that side of the football to play pretty good defense.”