Make no mistake about it - Northern Illinois is not coming to Boston College to lose. A 10-win teach each year for the past five seasons, the Huskies are one of the most tenacious teams in the nation.
Last Saturday, they took the defending national champion and incumbent #1 team in the rankings to the limit in a 20-13 loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes. Now 2-1, NIU will look to rebound and stay above .500 with a victory on Saturday in an afternoon matinee against the host Eagles.
The NIU Huskies are a solid all-around football team. Drew Hare is a tremendous college quarterback on offense, and the stingy defense gave the Bucks fits and starts. In the first half, the Huskies chased Cardale Jones from the QB position while intercepting him twice.
Watching those two interceptions gives a telling sign of how good this NIU defense can really be. The first pick came virtually right away - just over a minute into the first quarter. Facing a third and long, NIU went to a three-man rush against the Buckeye front, using a nickel defensive back while maintaining three linebackers. When the Huskies lined up, they gave off the appearance of a fourth rusher on the weak side, potentially showing their hand as a blitz.
The nose guard does a great job of occupying the middle of the blockers, ultimately ripping them off to the weak side as the defensive ends come flying around the tackle. Jones, feeling the pressure, sees the hole to step up on the left side to make the throw, but his body positioning all but seals off a throw to the right side. Meanwhile, the coverage leaves an opening that looks like the receiver's open, but they ultimately have three guys in the pattern.
Jones, pressured up into the collapsed pocket, uses all of his momentum to make the throw. But he overthrows the receiver by a country mile, and it's an easy pick for a defensive back who was maybe looking to swat the ball or tackle the receiver to prevent yardage.
What helps NIU is that the defensive end disengages just before the throw and slides over to take on the quarterback. That doesn't allow Jones to finish his throwing motion, and it forces him to go all arm in an off-balance motion. While that may work against lesser defenses, it's a busted play thanks to the penetration caused by those defensive players.
On the second pick, NIU offers Ohio State a completely different look. They've switched a four-man front in a traditional 4-3 defense. The linebackers are stacked to the middle, though, with a linebacker out towards coverage on the strong side.
When the ball is snapped, NIU leaves back side receiver in one-on-one coverage while choosing to leave the slot man for the safety to cover. That allows the leftover linebacker to go right into the hole where Jones is scrambling. NIU is gambling on this play that their one defensive back can cover the near side receiver if the throw goes that way, while leaving the far side to go after Jones if he goes that way.
The four man rush once again fractures the OSU line, leaving a wide open hole for the middle linebacker to fill in. The SAM linebacker is able to fall back and cover the short out route run by the sideline receiver, while the defensive end pushes the tackle right into the route where the running back is headed. This takes away Jones' ability to look for the primary target at the 34 yard line - and it takes away a secondary option since the RB can't recover to cut back inside. At this point, the receiver who was on the near side is a non-entity.
Jones is still looking downfield since he checks off of his primary target, who is on the sideline and likely won't make the sticks given the coverage of the linebacker and (five yards downfield) the defensive back. So he checks to the slot receiver, who is double covered by that DB and the safety.
His throw is completely rushed since the middle linebacker (#45) is coming at him like a freight train through the chasm in the pocket, and once again, Jones is forced to make an off balance throw. Because he's rolling out to his right, he has to stand up and turn his whole body to throw up the middle. As a result, it's a not a bullet pass to a receiver in stride. The defensive back sees this happening, undercuts the route, and gets what might be his easiest pick of the season.
This defense is a great product of a tremendous system. NIU does a great job of, well, doing their job, and as long as the pieces come together, they're going to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. These are passing examples, so it's likely this can be beat if the running game is on point. Boston College isn't going to spread those receivers all over the field out of a shotgun, and if they are, they're going to use a lot more short routes and misdirections. They're likely to throw an option run in there.
The good news is that the BC option, if it's up to par, is going to be able to beat this defense. On that second interception, if the running back remains as an option, the middle linebacker is left having to make a simple decision who to attack. The quarterback, however, can then either pitch to the outside for a gain of four or five or, if the linebacker goes after the RB, take it upfield with a blocker. Towards the end of the throw, I can't help but wonder what would've happened if Ohio State kept the running back in the backfield for an option run. I think the aggressive nature of the defense would've attacked the back, allowing Jones to break through that hole with #65 - one of his offensive linemen - as a lead blocker on #6. If the offensive lineman is plowing ahead, all of a sudden there's a block and Jones springs it for a 10-yard gain.
So it'll be interesting to see how BC's game plan and subsequent execution can go head-to-head with this NIU defense. This is an ultra talented group, and it's going to be very fun watching the battle on Saturday, especially given the mindset of BC to just play to strengths and do whatever works.