DeKALB – Every day, Northern Illinois’ last three plays of practice take place in the red zone.
Not every team runs practice with that schedule, but it’s the way NIU coach Dave Doeren wants his team to prepare for the tough, red zone situations.
Whether it’s because of the way Doeren has his team practice or not, the Huskies have had plenty of red zone success on defense this season, particularly on defense.
“It’s something that we believe in, as a toughness part of how to finish. Put our defense in the toughest position we can be in,” Doeren said during Tuesday’s news conference at the Yordon Center. “We put our offense, flipping that around, they have to score to finish practice with a perfect run or a perfect pass.”
The Huskies allow red zone points 59 percent of the time, which is the fifth-best total in the country. No. 2 Oregon leads Football Bowl Subdivision teams at 52 percent. No. 1 Alabama is one percentage point ahead of the Huskies at 58 percent.
Defending the red zone has been a big part of NIU’s defensive success. Through eight games, the Huskies rank second in the Mid-American Conference when it comes to scoring defense (18.1 points a game) and third in total defense (374.8 yards a game).
Doeren gave credit to his team’s preparation when it comes to playing defense inside the 20-yard line.
“When you practice that last in practice, when you’re most tired, I think it puts you in that right frame of mind when you’re down there on game day,” he said.
NIU defensive end Jason Meehan said there’s just a certain mentality which leads to the Huskies’ success when opponents get inside the 20-yard line.
“Especially with the defensive line, that’s a big point of pride and emphasis with us,” Meehan said. “Our coach likes to use a phrase ‘run the ball at me.’ It’s pretty much, if you’re in in goal line, you want them to run the ball at you and you want to be the guy to make the play for the defense.
“When we get into goal line situations, you get pumped up for it because it’s what you play the game for. So we definitely try to bend and not break when it gets down there.”
NIU linebacker Michael Santacaterina said the Huskies’ defensive unit is just a tough group. They “bull up” when opposing offenses get down there. To him, the best red zone defense is simple.
Just don’t let teams move the ball inside the 20.
“The next thing is just not let them down there,” Santacaterina said. “That’s an even better red zone defense. That’s our next goal, just not let them into the red zone to begin with.”