DeKALB – During practice this past week, Northern Illinois head coach Dave Doeren would put the ball on the 1-yard line. He would tell his players “4th-and-1” and challenge his team to pick it up, yelling and screaming at his offense.
Simply put, NIU’s second-year head coach thinks his team is strong enough to convert on those short-yardage situations. They picked up the yards during practice, and did the same thing during Saturday’s 45-3 win over Buffalo.
Doeren trusted his team on fourth down early, and all four of the Huskies’ first-half fourth down tries were converted easily. NIU was 4 of 5 on fourth down on the afternoon.
On the Huskies’ first drive of the game, NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch picked up seven yards on a 4th-and-1 from the Buffalo 21. The drive ended on a Da’Ron Brown 12-yard touchdown run.
Facing a 4th-and-goal from the Bulls’ 1-yard line in the second quarter, Lynch handed the ball to Akeem Daniels, who went to his right and into the end zone.
Just one drive later, Lynch scored a 4-yard touchdown when Doeren decided to go for it on 4th-and-2.
“It’s only a yard. Sometimes a yard can be a long way,” Lynch said. “All we need is just to make contact [with the defensive line], just stand them up, strain we call it. If I find a little crease, I’ll get it.”
The Huskies also converted a fake punt for the second time this season, when Luke Eakes took a direct snap and ran 32 yards when NIU faced a 4th-and-7 from its own 40 during the second quarter.
When it comes to going for it on 4th-and-1, Doeren doesn’t necessarily consider the call a gamble.
“I really don’t look at them as gambles. I kind of think our offense should be able to get a first down on 4th-and-1,” he said. “And, [we] put the ball in [Lynch’s] hands, and [say] ‘Let’s Go.’ That’s what I believe in.”
“... I’m not going to go down not swinging. I think 4th-and-1 is what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to be a team that can get it, and I know our defense responds to the aggressive nature of our offense as well.”
NIU’s defense certainly responded in Saturday’s win, holding a team to no touchdowns for the first time since 2010.
To Doeren, the fourth-down calls not only score points, change field position and keep the defense off the field, they also play a big part in changing momentum.
Maybe the Huskies were just a much, much better team than Buffalo was on Saturday. Then again, maybe those early calls helped propel the Huskies to their dominating Mid-American Conference win.
“Those are big plays. If I didn’t go for it, these guys would probably be mad at me, too,” Doeren joked. “I think you just have to be that kind of guy. If you’re an aggressive coach and you back down on 4th-and-1, that’s not what you stand for. And I’m not going to do that.”