We’re very fortunate to have the SB Nation network of contributors to work with during game weeks. This edition of our Q&A series features a chat with Dave Drury, Northern Illinois expert and staff writer at Hustle Belt, SB Nation’s Mid-American Conference site. We commiserate regarding offensive struggles and discuss what NIU must do to avenge its Orange Bowl loss.
TN: Northern Illinois currently sits at 1-2, but 1-0 in the MAC. What were your expectations for this year’s team entering the season, and have the first three weeks changed them?
DD: My expectations for the season, like most Huskie fans I would say, was a cautious optimism. We knew NIU would have a strong defense but we wanted to see how the Huskie offense would grow over the off-season and what they would develop in to...sadly there hasn’t been much growth on that side of the ball. I had the Huskies finishing the season 7-5 or 8-4, with most losses coming from our hellish non-conference schedule. So, right now, at 1-2 with our lone win coming against CMU, it’s pretty much right about where I thought we’d be entering the Florida State game. Looking ahead, with the way our offense has been playing...I think we might struggle more in conference play than I initially thought, adding another loss or two to our total, but, otherwise, I think NIU is pretty close to what to what I expected to see.
TN: The Huskies’ offense has struggled so far this year, something with which FSU fans can certainly identify. What has led to these issues, and how many do you think can be fixed this year?
DD: The biggest issue in our offense is the lack of variety. The Huskies use the same plays over and over and, while it works in the first half (sometimes), by the second half the defenses have adjusted and are able to get stops. And, instead of showing anything new our coaches just keep trying with the same plays...leading to many 3-and-outs and, in the second half, a very tired defense. And that’s why you see numbers like these: in the first half NIU’s defense has given up a total of 6 points, in the second half they’ve given up 53 points. And that’s all from our offense not being able to sustain offensive drives. Best way to fix this...adjust to the defense’s adjustments and, for the love of God, run some new plays!! NIU fan’s have been yelling that for years at Rod Carey and company...we’ll see if they actually mix it up this time.
TN: How do you expect the NIU offense to attack Florida State and its new defense? Where do you think they might find success?
DD: I expect to see a lot of rushing attempts that utilize motion, jet sweeps, and run/pass options with our somewhat mobile quarterback Marcus Childers. From what I’ve seen from FSU this season though is that they’re giving up much more yards through the air than on the ground...and that doesn’t bode well for NIU since our bread and butter is to run the ball. I’m hoping some play-action passes and a more aggressive passing attack is in the game plan because we need to get you guys on your heels early like Samford did if we want a chance.
TN: On the other side of the ball, the Northern Illinois defense has been downright salty, currently checking in at 13th by S&P+. What’s made this unit so good this year?
DD: Our defense line might be small but they’re quick and powerful and they’ve set up this unit for success. Sutton Smith, who I’ll talk about him more in the next question, is the biggest reason why. A lot of times two O-linemen will need to block him which frees up another Huskie defender and allows NIU to get pressure on both runners and QBs very quickly. The biggest thing I’ve seen this year that is an improvement from previous years is how well the Huskies have been making open field and one-on-one tackles. The DBs and linebackers have been wrapping up and not allowing many missed tackles or extra yardage as they have done before, which has been crucial in stopping many of our opponent’s drives.
TN: Florida State has struggled to block, to say the least. Which pass rushers will we come to become all to familiar with this Saturday? If FSU is going to move the ball, how will they do it?
DD: As I said, Sutton Smith is a name you should know for this game. Last season he led the country in tackles for loss, sacks, QB pressures, and QB hurries...and this year he’s on the same pace. The junior DE is a straight up beast when it comes to wreaking havoc in the backfield. And it doesn’t matter if it’s against P5 teams or G5 teams, he finds a way to get into the backfield and get pressure on opponents. And by making them scramble, it allows others like Ben LeRoy or Matt Lorbeck to make plays as well. That being said, if the Seminoles are going to have success, it’s much easier through the air than on the ground. While our secondary has been very solid at tackling, their coverage is a little soft and that allows teams to dip and dunk their way down the field. Quick, short throws are the best way...but feel free to not do that, as I’d really like to see an upset happen here.
TN: Any unmentioned Huskies’ playmakers we should keep an eye out for Saturday afternoon?
DD: Halfback Tre Harbison has been running well this year, averaging 7.1 yards per carry, but, for the most part, the Huskies have more of a team mentality. They spread the ball around a lot and have a lot of depth at running back and quite a few receivers that can make plays. It comes down to how well our offensive line blocks which has been an adventure this season...but Max Scharping is a offensive tackle that is attracting a lot of NFL scouts. And on defense linebackers Kyle Pugh and Antonio Jones-Davis have been all over the field stopping plays.
TN: Finally, let’s get a prediction. FSU currently finds themselves as 10 point favorites with a very low under/over of 43. How do you see this one playing out?
DD: I think this game has the possibility of being a close game...if NIU can muster up any offense. But with the way NIU has played the first few weeks, I think the Seminoles will start to pull away in the second half just as Iowa and Utah did. I think our defense is solid enough to limit the points from FSU but I think the Huskies are just too outmatched offensively. NIU - 17 FSU - 31.