CHICAGO – The statement dripped with such hyperbole, it was initially hard to take seriously. The worst offensive performance of his career. Certainly Northern Illinois’ fourth-year starting quarterback has seen lower points.
And, statistically, Chandler Harnish has.
There was NIU’s shutout loss to Navy in 2008. There have been more games where he was held without a touchdown or under 200 passing yards, as he was Saturday. But sitting in an interview room an Soldier Field, after No. 7 Wisconsin so thoroughly throttled NIU’s vaunted offense, this felt worse than any other.
“It was incredibly disappointing,” Harnish said. “It was probably the worst offensive performance I’ve been a part of, myself included. I’m not blaming anybody. I didn’t play a great game either.”
Nobody did. That much was obvious. What isn’t so clear is how this offense responds.
Coach Dave Doeren and his players kept making the same point Saturday. This program was in the same position a year ago. It’s not like climbing out of its 1-2 plight is unprecedented.
But then, the offense never has had this much of a letdown, not when the expectations were so high and national stage so grand.
“I wasn’t shocked that their defense played well,” said Doeren, who spent the past five seasons as Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator. “I was shocked that we dropped passes that normally we don’t. I thought we just didn’t help ourselves enough. And that’s the big thing, when you’re playing a team against Wisconsin, you can’t beat yourself. And I thought that we did that.
“I told the guys, when you play anybody in a close game, you’ve got to make the plays that are there to make. And we didn’t. Obviously we’ve got to go back and look at why.”
So many reasons. The dropped passes Doeren mentioned, miscommunication everywhere, pull blockers tripping before they make their target. It was more than the Badgers’ stout defense, which shut out Oregon State the previous week.
“Not a day that I’m very proud of as a coach,” Doeren said. “I think our guys, we tried to get them to play loose, and we didn’t.”
Lay down your blame for NIU’s defense, if only temporarily. True, those 621 yards allowed were embarrassing. Wisconsin’s 97-yard touchdown drive midway through the second quarter was miserable.
But the real disappointment was NIU’s offense. And the only way this program recovers – as it did a year ago – is if the offense leads the way.
This defense is what it is – imperfect, undersized with the potential to be just good enough. NIU can have a good season that way, but not if the offense doesn’t match expectations.
So how do Harnish and Co. respond?
The Huskies have Cal Poly this week, and it’s at home. Cal Poly is good. NIU is much better. This should be a “tuneup game,” as fans call it. The same could’ve been said last season about North Dakota, which turned into a much-too-close 23-17 squeaker.
We’ll learn a lot this weekend, even if the opponent is weak on paper. If what happened at Soldier Field is a fluke, NIU’s offense will do what it did against Army. If not, there could be trouble.
“It was just a very frustrating day,” Harnish said.
He was talking about Saturday. The phrase will be used again if NIU’s offense doesn’t get better.
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at email@example.com.