DeKALB – It was puzzling. Here Northern Illinois was, playing a football game. But for the first 15 minutes Saturday at Buffalo, the Huskies weren’t playing their football game.
Wide receiver jets, quarterback drop backs, running back handoffs – all are part of what NIU has done offensively this season. All were called against the Bulls in the opening quarter. But something else was glaringly missing.
“I am absolutely shocked that we have not seen any option football yet in the first three possessions for Northern Illinois,” ESPN color commentator Doug Graber said over the airwaves with six minutes left in the opening quarter. “That’s what they do best.”
Graber has spent 35 years in coaching, including stints with the Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Bucs and New York Jets. He was Rutgers head coach for five seasons in the early 1990s and has even coached in the Mid-American Conference, most recently as Ball State’s defensive coordinator in 2009.
The man knows his football. And NIU’s first-quarter play calling failed to make sense to him.
“This series now, I will really be interested to see if Northern Illinois gets back to running their base, option offense,” Graber said with a little more than a minute left in the first, after Bulls kicker Peter Fardon tied the game at 3.
Then, three straight Chandler Harnish passes.
On the broadcast, Graber quickly excused the option's vacancy to NIU playing Buffalo's 3-4 scheme. After the game, Doeren said the Bulls' defense was designed stop the run.
“They did a nice job playing the run,” Doeren said. “They have some nice players on defense. They’ve got big, strong guys on the edge, and they did a nice job.”
Doeren was right. Buffalo consistently used eight defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the run, especially on first down. But the same conditions – 3-4 defense, eight defenders in the box – didn’t stop NIU from running the option six times for 33 yards to open the second quarter.
It’s not a coincidence the Huskies scored their first touchdown with that possession.
Really, there were only two ways to look at NIU’s first quarter. It was either bad coaching or safe coaching.
These are not bad coaches.
For all the talk about not looking past Buffalo and focusing on Toledo – NIU's upcoming opponent Nov. 1 – the first quarter sure didn’t play out that way. NIU without the option is NIU without its best play, let alone its full playbook. It also limits the hits Harnish takes.
These are things you do when you’re saving for the next opponent.
“We ran for 178 yards,” Doeren said. “If they’re going to pack it in, we’ve got to be able to throw on first down and get yards. But it wasn’t like they shut us out in the running game. We just didn’t run the way that we wanted to all the time.”
True, Buffalo didn't shut down NIU's run game. It did hold the Huskies to three yards on six carries in the opening quarter, when it didn't run its best play once. It took four touchdown-less possessions to return to its brand of football it used to run for almost 500 yards the previous week against Western Michigan, a better defense than Buffalo. By that time, two turnovers and a missed field prevented the Bulls from jumping out to a significant lead.
NIU got what it wanted – a shot to go at Toledo at relatively full strength. The Huskies are fortunate it didn't cost them a loss.
• Ryan Wood is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @rwood_DDC