Steve Griffin, Deseret News
BYU coach Kalani Sitake reacts after a Cougar touchdown against Wisconsin on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018.

PROVO — What is a realistic expectation for BYU’s offense against a Northern Illinois defense that may be the best the Cougars have faced since Washington?

No disrespect intended to Utah State, whose defense also was stellar in thwarting the Cougars, but NIU, at least statistically, is a formidable force in stopping the run, sacking quarterbacks and limiting yards per play.

This deep in the season, numbers take on more meaning and NIU’s are the following: 37th in total defense; 22nd in rush defense; 63rd in pass defense; 45th in pass efficiency defense; 46th in scoring defense. But the most impressive numbers? NIU ranks No. 2 in fumble recoveries (10); No. 14 in sacks (22); No. 21 in tackles for loss (54); and allows just 2.7 yards per rush.

What these numbers tell you is that teams find it tough to run on these Huskies so offenses elect to pass, thus NIU's 63rd-ranked pass defense. But when you pass, NIU is pretty good at bringing pressure and sacking folks and making tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

" Freshman quarterback Zach Wilson is in for a big challenge in just his second start. "
Dick Harmon

All this means is that freshman quarterback Zach Wilson is in for a big challenge in just his second start.

The Cougars are favored by a touchdown, but Wilson will have his work cut out for him. He will see twists and stunts and a far more disciplined front seven than he faced against Hawaii. It will be a new planet entirely.

The reason BYU should win is NIU’s offense has struggled, especially with the pass. NIU’s offense ranks 123rd in pass offense; 126th in pass efficiency; 98th in yards per run and 98th in rushing.

This will be BYU’s offense against NIU’s defense.

A key for Wilson will be if BYU can get physical with NIU and try to crack that 2.7 yards per carry number. That will be the early indicator. If BYU can make NIU respect the run, Jeff Grimes and Aaron Roderick can hatch out some play-action passes.

If needed, BYU may need to move the pocket for Wilson, a tactic deployed very successfully almost four decades ago in Fort Collins against Coloado State when another Wilson, Marc, got his first start after Gifford Nielsen suffered a season-ending injury.

Regardless, this will be an interesting test for BYU’s offense and for Wilson.

It is expected NIU will do its thing and Wilson will be sacked, pressured and hit a few times. His learning curve will be significant. BYU will be doing well to score in the mid-20s and win it in a fourth-quarter contest.

But what can we make of it if BYU comes out and doesn’t duplicate the 49 points scored against Hawaii, but does score in the mid-to-high 30s?

It would be a pretty big deal.

It would signify some pretty decent progress by the youth movement triggered by Kalani Sitake and give meaning to some other numbers that got thrown around against a Hawaii defense that couldn’t be taken seriously.

What are those numbers?

• Most TD passes by a BYU quarterback (3) since the San Jose State game when Tanner Mangum did it almost exactly a year ago, or 11 games ago.

• The most points (49) by BYU’s offense since UMass (51) back in 2016.

• Best pass efficiency rating by a BYU quarterback (167.5) since 2015 (Tanner Mangum vs. Boise State, 167.7).

• Most BYU players involved in touchdowns (7) since 1989 with Ty Detmer (7) against Utah.

So, if a BYU offense that is averaging 25.1 points this season (93rd nationally) goes out and scores some 35 points against this NIU defense, what would it mean?

It would be a very big deal. And, in part, would push back a tiny bit on criticism that all Wilson’s production against Hawaii was simply taking advantage of a horrible defense.

This week’s picks:

Clemson 34, Florida State 27: Gamecocks have figured things out.

Texas Tech 42, Iowa State 21: Red Raiders bring out artillery.

Virginia 24, North Carolina 21: Bronco riding high.

Colorado 28, Oregon State 17: Buffs take easy pickings.

Georgia 32, Florida 28: Bulldogs bury a bone.

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Penn State 33, Iowa 28: PSU flexes some muscle.

South Florida 34, Houston 28: Clash of Group of Five speedsters.

Arizona State 31, Southern Cal 24: Trojans need Red Cross.

Utah State 42, New Mexico 28: Aggies are feeling it.

Washington 38, California 21: Huskies thrash Bears in trenches.

Boise State 42, Air Force 28: Broncos don’t look past flyboys.

Texas 27, Oklahoma State 21: Buy stock in Longhorns.

Fresno State 33, Hawaii 31: Bulldogs win with defense.

BYU 31, Northern Illinois 10: BYU gains momentum.

Last week: 11 for 14; overall 78 for 126