MADISON, Wis. – Since the end of the 2008 season, the Northern Illinois coaching staff put a heavy emphasis on improving in the red zone on offense.
They took a hard look at some of the best offensive schools in the country, such as Florida and TCU, looked at their film, talked with their coaches, felt like they learned a few things, took steps in the right direction and implemented those ideas into fall camp.
The Huskies scored on all four trips to the red zone in Saturday night’s 28-20 loss at Wisconsin, but it was two field goals instead of two touchdowns in the first half that left the them frustrated.
Although all that work in the offseason might pay off as the season progresses and a young team grows up, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said that for opening night, that emphasis might have been dialed up a notch too high.
“We made such a big deal about it I think we may have put too much pressure on them,” Limegrover said. “They knew we were in the red zone and we may have tried a little too hard. It’s like ‘We made it. We’re aware of it now. Let’s try and take a deep breath, put a pin in it and let’s go out and play.’ ”
Sophomore quarterback Chandler Harnish offered a simpler explanation why the Huskies didn’t break through into the end zone until the fourth quarter.
“They’ve got a great defense,” Harnish said. “And then we didn’t execute, that’s plain and simple. And we’ll get better at it.”
Limegrover said that when the team gets down into the red zone over half the play calls get the ball straight to the end zone but naturally because of the short field the offense becomes limited in what it can do and execution becomes even more critical.
“That field gets squeezed down and your list of calls goes down from a whole big sheet to a few calls you feel comfortable with and we just didn’t execute them,” Limegrover said. “That and third down are two areas where in the third quarter we really put our defense in a bind.”
The Huskies were 3 of 12 on third down and had seven plays that led to two punts in the third quarter while the Badgers scored two touchdowns on 15 offensive plays.
“You can’t run a first down play for five [yards] and a second down play for minus-2,” Limegrover said. “I was proud of the guys who came out and bang-bang-bang but then all of a sudden we’re third-and-10. That’s when defenses heat you up.”
But the Huskies still came away with a score on every red zone opportunity. Now, with a game under their belt and the experience of playing in an atmosphere like Camp Randall Stadium, they’ll look to net more than 20 points on those opportunities.
“It’s something we stressed during camp,” Limegrover said. I think the kids were disappointed but I chalk it up to that they may have been a little too amped up.”