NIU's secret to success: Depth
Fresh legs key to 2nd-half dominance
DeKALB – Everyone’s looking for a reason Northern Illinois has dominated second halves to the tune of an 83-7 advantage over four Mid-American Conference games.
NIU coach Jerry Kill downplayed the importance of second-half adjustments after the Huskies’ 33-7 victory Saturday against Central Michigan, NIU’s fifth straight win, lending most of the credit to his players.
Chippewas coach Dan Enos said the Huskies (6-2, 4-0 MAC West) stuck to the same first-half game plan and simply executed better in the final two quarters.
The Huskies’ busy sideline may point to the real answer.
NIU employed a constant rotation with a season-high 66 players receiving playing time compared to 51 Central Michigan players. The Huskies played 11 defensive linemen, 10 linebackers, 10 defensive backs, nine wide receivers, four running backs and even two quarterbacks. A majority of the NIU players were on the field before starters were pulled late in the fourth quarter with a win in hand.
While the Chippewas (2-6, 1-4 MAC West) tired, the Huskies still had fresh legs.
“We've always said, 'Let's play eight or nine defensive linemen. Why play a guy who's tired? Let's rotate them and keep them fresh,’ ” NIU coach Jerry Kill said.
“If you play as hard as you can play every snap, you can't play 50 snaps like that. You just can't. So our philosophy is if you play, you're going to give us 110 (percent effort).”
The rotation, aided by strength coach Eric Klein’s rigorous offseason conditioning program and the NIU training staff’s success at preventing injuries, also allows backups to gain valuable experience.
Safeties Mike Sobol and Garrett Barnas weren’t overwhelmed by increased playing time since starter Tracy Wilson went down with a groin injury in Week 3. Coaches have been pleased with senior Ed Jackson, who hadn't started a game in his first three seasons, since replacing sophomore Logan Pegram as the starting left guard two weeks ago.
"If you do have an injury, the other guy isn't just coming in and never played,” Kill said. “He's had that game experience. Whether that's the right philosophy or not, I don't know, but it's worked for us for several years.
"When you're a so-called mid-major or whatever, you got to find a way to build depth.”
Kill said third-ranked Boise State is one of the best in the country at running a constant flow of players on and off the sidelines. The practice keeps opponents guessing, Kill said.
"Boise State plays all kind of offensive personnel groupings, and we do that on offense,” Kill said. “(Saturday) you've seen different running backs. You've seen two quarterbacks. You've seen all kinds of stuff. That's preparation because the next opponent you play, they see it on film and they go, 'Jiminy Christmas.' ”
While the injury bug has bitten other MAC teams – CMU has lost two starters for the season (tackle Jake Olson and cornerback LaVarus Williams) and starting running back Paris Cotton was out Saturday – the only unavailable NIU players on Saturday were Wilson and defensive tackle Ron Newcomb (foot), who is expected to practice this week.
The Huskies hope the relentless rotation keeps their players fresh and continues to overwhelm the MAC.
“I just think the longer the season goes on, the faster it’s going to allow you to play,” NIU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said last week. “Other people, as you get to the second half, they’re going to wear down.
“Any time you can have a fresh body late in the season, and we’re not really banged up, I think it gives you a great advantage.”