Offense runs into trouble in red zone

Andrew Simon

The Northwestern offense exhibited a balanced attack against Southern Illinois on Saturday, recording 34 runs and 31 passes. It didn’t commit any turnovers. It scored on all six of its trips into the red zone.

These numbers help explain how the NU offense was so successful against SIU, scoring 31 points. Yet the Wildcats easily could have scored a great deal more, if not for those somewhat deceiving red zone numbers.

While the Cats converted all six of their trips inside the 20-yard line into scores, four of those were Amado Villareal field goals. Coach Pat Fitzgerald suggested the soggy conditions that persisted throughout the game had something to do with his team’s struggles near the goal line.

“If the conditions were a little different, maybe we call a couple different plays,” he said. “We mainly wanted to take care of the football. We felt like the points were on the board, so we didn’t want to do anything too exotic or risky.”

The NU attack, which flourished from most points on the field, suddenly lacked sharpness each time it got deep in SIU territory. The Cats ran 11 plays from the 10-yard line or closer, gaining just 25 yards and picking up a false start penalty. In those three possessions, they notched one touchdown and two field goals.

The lone trip to the end zone came on a 14-play drive in the middle of the third quarter. Once inside the 10, the Cats needed three carries from running back Tyrell Sutton and one from quarterback C.J. Bachér to cap the drive with seven points. On third-and-goal from the 2, Sutton took an option flip from Bachér, stretched out and just nudged the ball over the goal line.

On two other possessions, NU had first-and-goal at the SIU 5-yard line but came up short and had to settle for field goals. On the final attempt, the Cats took over after Jacob Schmidt’s blocked punt and immediately moved back five yards on the penalty. Running back Omar Conteh rushed for seven yards on first down, but was stuffed on second down after lining up at quarterback. Bachér threw incomplete and nearly was intercepted on third down.

In the season’s first two games, NU scored six touchdowns and kicked a field goal in seven red zone trips but went 10 of 24 on third downs. But the Cats converted 9 of 16 third downs Saturday, and Bachér said the team just needs to combine that production with its red zone output from the first two weeks.

“If we get both of those, we’re going to be a pretty explosive offense,” he said. “We’ve been relying these last few weeks on our explosion plays, and if we can get more consistent I think we can be the best offense in the country.”

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