Sports, Football

Stout Defense and Dynamic Offense Needs To Carry NIU

The official scorer recorded it as a loss. An air of disappointment pervaded the locker room, the players citing their expectation to end the game with a victory. In the school’s recent history, the game barely even deserved mention as one of the best.

Despite these facts, sometimes the best indicator of a team is how they lose. Specifically, this idea applies to mid-major FBS teams in their matchups against strong Power Five conference opponents. Even with a remarkable streak of five consecutive seasons with at least 11 wins, Northern Illinois University (2-1) reminded the nation of its formidable program with a loss on Saturday to No. 1 Ohio State (3-0). Entering the contest as a 34-point underdog, the Huskies confounded OSU with stifling defense en route to a narrow 20-13 defeat. As far as national exposure goes, any team that can make J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones look utterly inept usually receives increased publicity. While Power Five teams may schedule NIU to gain a supposedly easy non-conference win against a school that is more reputable than an FCS team, this program has toppled Iowa, Purdue, and Northwestern in the last two seasons. With a reasonable level of confidence, the Huskies look to do the same against a depleted and battered Boston College football team.

NIU has traditionally been led by an explosive offense, featuring a dual-threat quarterback and multiple running backs and receivers with great skill in open space. This season’s rendition has sacrificed a bit of the depth of previous squads, but still features capable athletes. Junior QB Drew Hare leads the team. The veteran signal caller tallied 900 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns against two interceptions in 2014 and has shown his talents in the early parts of 2015. With NIU’s lack of depth at running back, junior Joel Bouagnon has become a workhorse, with 57 carries already in 2015. Kenny Golladay, a junior transfer from North Dakota, has emerged as an explosive weapon from a thin wide receiving corps, accounting for 45 percent of NIU’s total receiving yardage and ranking sixth nationally with 376 yards.

Despite lacking its usual assortment of players, NIU has retained its traditionally untraditional offensive scheme. The offense, which has already amassed three touchdowns of over 45 yards, is built on the read-option and pre-snap motion. The threat of Hare running the football opens lanes for Bouagnon and the receivers. Head coach Rod Carey likes to call for the jet sweep, where a running back will sprint horizontally across the field, passing the QB just after he has taken the snap. They can hand it off, fake it and run with Hale, or use the fake to open passing plays. Ideally, this offense prefers to throw more than it runs the football.

Through pre-snap motion and play-action, the Huskies effectively disguise their offense and can run many plays from the same setup. While their passing plays are nothing more complex than opening space for downfield throws or creating lanes for quick screens, the motion moves defenders to aid the offense. Against BC, look for NIU to be a bit conservative in the passing game, much as they were against OSU. Figure for heavy doses of Hale and Bouagnon on the ground and short throws, as NIU’s offensive line will likely struggle against BC’s top-rated front seven.

In fact, the Northern Illinois offense amassed over 22 yards on a drive just once last Saturday. The majority of their points were scored following turnovers created by the defense. This season more than usual, NIU has relied on defensive efforts. Although NIU averages a pedestrian 388 yards allowed per game, Carey’s defense has forced nine turnovers in its first three games, good for fourth-best in the nation. In addition, while opponents have entered the red zone 10 times against the Huskies’ defense, they have scored a touchdown from that area just twice. While they have not been great at stopping ball movement, the Huskies have excelled at momentum-changing plays and at protecting their end zone.

With seven interceptions, including three against the Buckeyes, the secondary eagerly awaits a matchup with BC’s new QBs. To score against the BC defense, NIU will need at least one or two turnovers that create a short field. In order to place BC into those necessary passing scenarios, NIU needs to make BC’s rushing attack as inefficient as possible. This could prove to be a tall order, as Ohio State racked up 162 yards against them on the ground last weekend.

The Eagles’ clearly defined run-first philosophy, however, should give them an edge in terms of how many defenders they can commit to the run. Especially with new QBs, they can expect BC’s play calling to be rather predictable. To counter BC’s size advantage on the offensive line, they can crowd the box, especially when BC uses its heavy packages, with multiple tight ends and a fullback. By shutting down the running game, the defense can force passing situations, in which it can play tight coverage on the BC receivers, forcing Troy Flutie or Jeff Smith to throw into tight windows. These scenarios are critical for NIU to force the turnovers it will need for victory.

This week, a close loss that brings the program attention is no longer enough. For NIU, this is the week that they take another step forward to prove that they are not a team to be trifled with.

Featured Image by AP Photo / Jay LaPrete

September 24, 2015