A potential reunion with the Wisconsin Badgers crossed Dave Doeren's mind even before he became Northern Illinois' coach.
As he mulled NIU's offer in December, Doeren, then the Badgers' defensive coordinator, called his boss and friend, Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema.
"Bret and I were talking about whether I should or shouldn't take it, the pros and cons, this and that," Doeren recalled. "And I started laughing. I said, 'One of the deals is I've got to play two schools where I've worked, Kansas and Wisconsin. That sucks.' That's the negative to it when you look at being friends."
Bielema knew it would "put an interesting spin on everything."
"I still called the AD, did everything I could to help him get that job," he said. "It was something Dave had earned."
The positives of the NIU job won out, and Doeren accepted. After facing Kansas last week, he'll lead his Huskies team against Bielema and the seventh-ranked Badgers on Saturday afternoon at Chicago's Soldier Field.
Doeren's familiarity with Wisconsin's players and coaches could help Northern Illinois as it prepares for the game. Then again, the Badgers aren't known for tricky schemes. They do what they've always done, and they do it well.
"They're playing so well right now, I don't know if being there [previously] really helps," Doeren said. "They're a really talented football team. Obviously, I have some insight into their players, so that does help, but schematically, whether you were there or not, when you play Wisconsin, you're going to know what they're going to be in.
"You've just got to be able to stop it, and they take pride in that."
While Doeren saw Wisconsin's offense every day in practice the past few years, he's not as familiar with the man calling signals for the Badgers. Quarterback Russell Wilson, who transferred from NC State this summer, has been brilliant in his first two games for Wisconsin, ranking second nationally in passer rating (237.6) and completing 27 of 34 attempts (79.4 percent).
Doeren says Wilson is "like having Tolzien who can run," referring to former Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien, who completed 72.9 percent of his passes in 2010 but wasn't known for his foot speed.
"You've got that extremely confident, intelligent leader that knows how to manage the game," Doeren said, "but now when things break down, he can run for touchdowns. ... The athletic dimension he brings when things break down is something they haven't had since Tyler Donovan."
Wisconsin's ground game remains its M.O., and Northern Illinois' young defense ranks near the bottom of the FBS against the run, allowing 556 rush yards and six touchdowns in its first two games against Army and Kansas. If the Huskies can't stop Wisconsin's run attack Saturday, they'll have "no chance," Doeren said.
What gives NIU hope is an explosive offense led by senior quarterback Chandler Harnish. The Huskies have scored 91 points in their first two games and Harnish ranks among the top 10 nationally in both passer rating (197.96) and total offense (339.5 ypg).
Although Wisconsin comes off of a shutout against Oregon State, it lost starting cornerback Devin Smith to a season-ending foot injury. The Badgers lack depth at corner and could be vulnerable against the pass.
"Our skill is very good, our quarterback is playing well, tailbacks are all running hard when they're in there and we have a veteran O-line," Doeren said. "To me, that is where we match up well."
Doeren recruited Badgers defenders like safety Aaron Henry and linebacker Kevin Claxton. He considers Bielema and co-defensive coordinators Chris Ash and Charlie Partridge among his best friends.
"It's part of the deal," Doeren said. "You're going to run into guys that you're friends with and coach against them. You recruit against your friends all the time.
"It's not the most fun thing to do, but it's something you do quite a bit."