Saturday, 2-1 Northern Illinois will host 1-2 Kansas at Huskie Stadium. It's the first time since 2003 a Bowl Championship Series team has visited DeKalb.
Matt Tait covers the Jayhawks for the Lawrence Journal-World, and he took some time to discuss this year's Kansas squad and Saturday's game with Daily Chronicle NIU beat writer Steve Nitz.
Nitz: Charlie Weis wasn't exactly known as the most media-friendly coach at Notre Dame. What's it been like dealing with him on a consistent basis?
Tait: It's been absolutely wonderful. There are three things about Coach Weis that have jumped out at me during the time I've gotten to know him: 1. He's honest. He says what he means and means what he says and that's incredibly refreshing in the world of college football coaches. Now that doesn't mean he gives away everything or doesn't hold stuff back, but he's a straight-shooter and always does his best to answer our questions. 2. He's fair. He realizes we have a job to do and genuinely tries to help us do that job. You can't ask for more than that. 3. He's wildly entertaining. From all of his stories from the Parcells and Belichick days to his New Jersey attitude and sense of humor, Coach Weis keeps us on our toes at every press conference and chance to talk.
Nitz: What's the main difference he's brought to the Kansas program?
Tait: The Jayhawks were in desperate need of the kind of attitude that Weis possesses. Tough. No-nonsense. No excuses. That's not to say that he doesn't have fun. He does. And these guys really seem to love playing for him. But before they could get to that point, he laid down the law early and often and has not wavered one bit from what he expects. Bringing discipline, accountability and toughness back to the program has done wonders inside the locker room and on the field. They talk a lot about turning the corner on the field, and that seems to be coming, but Weis got things turned around off the field very quickly and that has paid off already in terms of making this a better, closer team.
Nitz: The Jayhawks' defense has given up a ton of yards this season, but Kansas leads the nation with 12 forced turnovers. Any reason for that?
Tait: They're still not the most talented defense, but they play as hard as anybody. During the past couple of years I think these guys got to the point where they expected things to go wrong and then, when they did, they were kind of desensitized to the impact of that. Not anymore. Not only do they expect to make plays and expect to win, but they're also unfazed by any setbacks that they may come across. Defensive coordinator Dave Campo has really emphasized all 11 guys flying to the ball and several of the turnovers they have gotten have been because guys were hustling to the football and simply wound up in the right spot to grab a tipped interception or pounce on a loose ball.
Nitz: Kansas quarterback Dayne Crist was a heralded fifth-year transfer for the Jayhawks. How has he played so far?
Tait: Crist has started slow, but I think he's been better than most people realize. He still knows the offense inside and out and still brings great poise and confidence to the field and the huddle. There have been times and drives where he has looked great, getting the ball out quickly, getting into a quick rhythm and hitting on consecutive passes. And then there have been others where he has looked a little slow to react and a little unsure of himself. But, remember, this guy went a full year between starts and has had to deal with multiple injuries. I expect him to continue to improve gradually each week. The difference he's made for this program is huge and goes beyond just stats and touchdowns.
Nitz: What Kansas skill player does the Northern Illinois defense need to watch out for?
Tait: It has to be Tony Pierson, KU's sophomore running back. Despite his small build (5-10, 175), he's run tough for the first three weeks and shown himself to be a legitimate threat from anywhere on the field. He topped the 100-yard mark in the first two games and then showed his skills as a receiver in the loss to TCU. Pierson's the fastest guy on the team and I would expect Weis and company to keep finding clever ways to get the ball into his hands.
Nitz: Care to give a prediction?
Tait: Sure. I think KU gained a lot of confidence from last week's performance against TCU and I think that came at a perfect time for this team's mentality. After losing at home to Rice, they needed to believe they could compete again and I think they firmly believe that now. Throw onto that the fact that Weis has been able to use the point spread and some comments from Dave Doeren earlier in the week about how NIU gave last year's game away and I think you'll see a confident and motivated KU team in DeKalb this weekend. Kansas 35, Northern Illinois 31.