DeKALB – It was a crisis. For two games, Northern Illinois hadn’t played like Northern Illinois.
The Huskies run game was faltering. Fans were grumbling. Their identity was missing.
Sensing the need for change, coach Dave Doeren returned to the basics.
“We challenged each other as a staff to make it a physical game plan,” Doeren said. “It was part of the install. They [players] felt it probably the first day when we put in a lead play. Just wanted to get two double teams on their [defensive tackles] and our fullback on a linebacker and let them run down hill.
“That’s who we are. It’s our makeup.”
And it’s when NIU running back Jasmin Hopkins knew Saturday was going to be special.
Hopkins was the beneficiary of Doeren’s assertive effort to restore the running game. The Huskies rushed 51 times for 355 yards, physically beating Cal Poly, 47-30. Their senior tailback led the way with a career-high 143 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries.
“We were just trying to get that sour taste out of our mouths, get back into the running game,” Hopkins said. “Make it easier for Chandler [Harnish] to get into the passing game. Basically the whole time last week was spent on getting that downhill mentality back going.”
This looked like Huskie football.
Their 51 run plays were three less than the previous two weeks combined. Hopkins personally rushed five more times than he had against Kansas and Wisconsin. He finished with four attempts against the Badgers.
With the run game clicking, everything else followed.
“It is so easy,” Harnish said when asked how much running opened the field for passing. “... They have to play soft coverage if they want to get their safeties to the box and stop the run. So, it’s very easy. That’s what we need to do. That’s the way our offense is built on.”
A week ago, NIU was embarrassed primarily because it was less physical than its opponent. As Doeren planned, roles flipped Saturday.
Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh knew the only chance his team had was to prevent NIU from running. He said the Huskies offensive line made that strategy impossible.
“Those six or seven guys that they have up front are good players,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said. “They were a load for us. We’re not the biggest team in the United States. We played hard and we played with good pad level against (previous opponents) Montana and South Dakota State running the ball. (NIU’s offensive line) played at a different level.
“As good as their quarterback and as good as their running back is, I think that those guys up front deserve a lot of credit.”
Now, everything feels normal again. The identity is back, just in time for the MAC.
On a Saturday when NIU needed to set a tone entering Mid-American Conference play, none was more important than re-establishing success on the ground.
“I think it’s huge, and for a lot of reasons,” Doeren said. “One, it’s the mindset of our team. They want to be able to run the football and be a downhill team. It makes Chandler’s job easier – when he has a run game – to be a passing quarterback. It also keeps our defense off the field. Time of possession, we won today. I know that’s been a big topic of conversation.
“When you’re running the ball and you get off the field on third down, you’re going to be OK in that category. And we were today.”