Onside gamble doesn't pay off for Huskies

CHICAGO -- The hardest part for Northern Illinois when it reviews Saturday’s 49-7 loss to Wisconsin won’t be re-watching the Badgers score seven touchdowns, Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson's brilliance or all the Huskies’ dropped passes.

Sure, none of that will be fun to endure again.

But what will really get to the Huskies’ stomachs will be the replay -- and likely slow-motion replay -- of Northern Illinois’ failed onside kick attempt. The No. 7 Badgers may have been too much for Northern Illinois no matter the play’s outcome, but the Huskies would love to know how the game would have played out if the ball had bounced their way.

It certainly was already on their minds minutes after the game.

“I think if we get the onside kick -- and I’m not blaming anyone -- it could have been a game-changer,” Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish said.

Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren had planned the onside kick days before. Having been Wisconsin’s defensive coordinator for five years, he understood the Badgers’ personnel as well as anyone. He thought the only way his Huskies would be able to compete with Wisconsin was to tire its massive linemen.

Doeren’s idea to achieve that was to score early, onside the ball, recover it and go down the field again for another quick touchdown. If the Huskies accomplished that, Doeren believed his team had a chance.

On Northern Illinois’ third drive, Harnish completed passes of 20 and 39 yards, setting up a 3-yard touchdown run by Jasmin Hopkins to tie the game at 7-7 with 1:59 left in the first quarter.

Then, came the dramatic onside attempt.

Northern Illinois kicker Matthew Sims popped the ball high into the air. After the ball bounced off the first Wisconsin player who had a chance to catch it, the Badgers’ Bradie Ewing ran under it. But when he touched it, Northern Illinois’ Courtney Stephen collided with him, and the ball flew loose again.

With the ball soaring in the air, Northern Illinois’ Dominique Ware was the next to reach for it. As he was about to pull it down, teammate Stephen O’Neal knocked into him. Ware tried to hold onto it as he fell, but it wasn’t to be. Wisconsin’s Jacob Pedersen finally wrestled it away from Ware and gained the possession.

With that, the ball, the momentum and eventually the game were Wisconsin’s. The Badgers scored three plays later, and Northern Illinois never challenged them again.

The Huskies were left playing the “what if” game afterward.

“Had we gotten that surprise onside and marched down the field to get them tired and scored, then it’s a different ballgame,” Doeren said. “That was the game plan. Obviously, it backfired. They got a short field and took advantage.”

Three games into his coaching career, Doeren finds his Huskies at 1-2. It wasn’t where they hoped to be, but they also understood it was a distinct possibility with playing Kansas on the road and then highly-ranked Wisconsin.

What Doeren and his players immediately took to heart after Saturday’s loss was that the Huskies were in this same predicament last season and recovered. They began last season with a loss to Iowa State, a win over South Dakota and a loss to Illinois. At 1-2, Northern Illinois responded with nine consecutive wins.

Doeren wasn’t around last season, but he’s read up on his Northern Illinois history.

“We’re 1-2,” Doeren said. “We were 1-2 here last year and went on a run. That’s what we’re going to talk about when we get home. We got a nine-game schedule left. Every goal on our board is still there.”

If history is to repeat itself, Harnish believes the Huskies’ leaders have to be accountable.

“We got a lot of seniors on the team,” Harnish said. “We have a lot of leadership, guys with experience. We’re going to bounce back. We’re going to put this one out of our memory, and we’re going into Cal Poly [next week] like we’re going into a fresh season.

“We have to be great leaders this week and bounce back from adversity. We always talk about doing it the hard way. This is a great week for us to step up and show what we’re made of.”