Commentary: What the Lack of a Running Game Means
by Jonathan Hodges

A lot has been made of Northwestern's lack of a running game since the beginning of last season and continuing through now.  And, for good reason, as this season's current rushing attempt and yardage leader is QB Dan Persa (and that's with sack numbers included), while last season featured the same result for QB Mike Kafka if one removes sack yardage.  And it's not for lack of trying, as the offense ran the ball 48.6% of the time in 2009 and a relatively high 62.0% of the time in 2010, through 5 games.  We'll look through the reasons why the running game has been down so much and what it means for the 'Cats.

The Running Backs

A primary problem has been the complete lack of a reliable producer at the running back position, in case you didn't notice that.  RB Arby Fields looked to break through as a true freshman in 2009, as he led all NU RBs in carries (82), yards (305), and TDs (5) last year, but has essentially been benched in 2010 thanks to multiple costly fumbles.  After being listed as the starter for the first 4 games of the 2010 season, he didn't even appear in Northwestern's visit to Minnesota (note that he has not appeared on the injury report at all since the 2010 regular season began).

Going around the table of the "running back by committee," former walk-on and redshirt junior Jacob Schmidt does a lot well, like short yardage carries, blocking, and short receiving routes, but doesn't have the home-run potential needed from an every-down back.  Senior Stephen Simmons is quick but also not built to be an every down back and his declining use indicates that the coaching staff agrees (although he still presents a threat as the primary NU kickoff return man).

Redshirt junior Scott Concannon saw some meaningful time last season but has apparently been passed over this year, being used in only 3 games so far in what was essentially garbage time.  But, he has essentially given way to local product Mike Trumpy, a redshirt freshman, who has put together back-to-back 53 yard games (25 carries over that span), which comes out to a respectable 4.2 yards per carry.  While the coaching staff is still incorporating him into the offense he is splitting time with Schmidt and some of the others.

The one other running back to be used this season is true freshman Adonis Smith, who had 2 carries for 1 yard at Minnesota in his first collegiate action.  Coach Fitz made it clear that he was putting him out there to get his feet wet and that Smith would be used more in the coming weeks.  It's apparent that the coaching staff is continuing to look for that guy who can be a consistent performer while hitting that home-run from time to time that Northwestern has been missing.

It is worth noting that some backs have done a better job of hitting the holes opened by the offensive line, and they have consequently moved up the depth chart.  Don't blame the coaches for not trying all of their options, as you can tell by the long list of RBs above (6).

The Offensive Line and The Coaches

The line cannot remain blameless in this as individual breakdowns on seemingly every play have limited the amount of holes that the runners have to go through.  And there have been numerous times where backs have been hit before even reaching the line of scrimmage through no fault of their own.  The OL knows this has been an issue and has been working to correct the issues, but the fact is that this has been an underwhelming performance from a rather talented unit.  Although the line has been relatively young, there are a lot of highly touted recruits who are now starting along with two experienced guys (LT Al Netter and C Ben Burkett) who have got the attention of the conference awards voters.

Another group complicit in the running game issues is the coaching staff.  The head-scratching insistence on callng certain plays has resulted in poor results; for example, the insistence on sticking with the option against Vanderbilt despite losing yardage on almost every try thanks to Vanderbilt's quick LB's and an inability of the OL and WRs to hold their blocks.  While it is great to stick to the run every once in a while to keep the defense honest, the 'Cats have very rarely been able to catch their opponent dropping guys into pass coverage or forgetting about the RB while rushing the passer.

One could point to the spread offense as a source of the running issues, due to fewer blockers in the box, but the 'Cats have made running out of the spread work very well since adopting the offense in 2000.  The string of running backs from 2000-2008 includes Damien Anderson, Jason Wright, Noah Herron, and Tyrell Sutton - all of whom put together at least one 1,000 yard individual season and also all of whom played running back in the NFL at some juncture.

Northwestern, though, hasn't turned to the "air raid" type offense that relies almost exclusively on passing as they continue to put the ball in the hands of the RBs (30 times a game, on average, in the 2010 season).  And they continue to rely on Persa's running abilities and the short passing game to get smaller chunks of yards on a consistent basis.  It's hard to argue with NU converting over 45% of its third downs in 2009 and over 51% in 2010.

The Statistics

In 2009, the Wildcats ranked 95th nationally and 8th in the Big Ten in rushing offense (117.5 yards per game).  The running backs ran the ball 288 times for 3.7 yards per carry and 10 TDs total.  It is worth noting that those numbers are a bit skewed due to the large number of times the 'Cats ran the ball against the first two opponents that year, Towson and Eastern Michigan, where NU RBs ran it a total of 85 times (29.5% of the season's RB carries in just 15.4% of the season's games).  NU therefore had to turn to the passing game, including those short "dink and dunk" passes, to get the short yardage, and the 'Cats ended up gaining 71.0% of their offensive yardage through the pass throughout the season.

This year, things look a little better, but much of that could be attributed to the strength of schedule (or lack thereof) through the first 5 games of the 2010 season.  NU ranks 62nd nationally but 9th in the conference in rushing offense with 155.2 yards per game in 2010.  The running backs have run the ball 150 times and are averaging 3.3 yards per carry this year, which is actually 0.4 yards per carry lower than last year.  Much of that can be attributed to the aforementioned Arby Fields who is averaging just 2.9 yards per carry this season and he currently has the most carries of any NU RB, despite not even getting a carry last week.  Currently, the best 2 RBs in terms of yards per carry are Schmidt (3.7) and Trumpy (3.6) who are tied for second on the team in terms of RB carries.

Regarding the lack of the home-run, Northwestern hasn't had a run longer than 25 yards since Mike Kafka did so in 2008 (a 26 yard run against OSU in a game after he had a 53 yard run at Minnesota).  The last time an NU running back had a carry longer than 25 was a 66 yard by Tyrell Sutton against MSU in 2008.  The inability to get a momentum-changing play from the ground game has definitely hampered the 'Cats offense, who are forced to take more risks through the air in order to move the ball, while the opposing defense can commit less effort against the run knowing that a big running play isn't all that likely to come.

What it Means

Despite what the old sayings state, one does not have to run the ball all that well to win football games.  Just look at NU's 13-5 record since the start of the 2009 season.  But the fact that 10 of those wins have come by one score or less should tell everyone something.  In order to put an opponent away, one needs a reliable and consistent running game.

A perfect example is NU's 30-25 win over Central Michigan this year, a game in which the 'Cats held a 30-13 lead early in the fourth quarter.  Not only was NU not able to run the ball effectively in order to bleed significant time off the clock, but the running game fumbled the ball and essentially opened the door for CMU.  Another good example is the 2009 33-31 win over Wisconsin where the 'Cats held a 27-14 halftime lead.

It's clear that one of Coach Fitz's strategies is to run the ball and stay conservative when he has the lead as he tries to make the opponent earn the victory (i.e. avoid interceptions and incompletions that stop the clock).  But that strategy becomes significantly more difficult when the NU offense effectively shuts down as it sticks to either the unsuccessful running game or short passes that are quickly bottled up.  Given this strategy, expect more close games as Northwestern still isn't able to burn the clock with the lead.

What to Do

Expect the 'Cats to keep trying.  The OL will continue to work on its run blocking, the coaches will continue to refine their play calls, and the running backs will continue to be shuffled, including a good amount of carries coming to newcomer Adonis Smith.  Being in the middle of the season, as we are now, these are not bad strategies as there is just not enough practice time to change running schemes.

But after the season the staff, Coach Fitz in particular, must look long and hard as he evaluates his running back recruits, the offensive scheme, and the coaches on staff hired to help execute that scheme.  With continued issues in the ground game, it's worth thinking about the offensive line and running backs coaches, specifically.  Until that time, hopefully the Wildcats can get something going before having to result to more drastic measures.  Fitz and others on the staff now obviously appreciate what a solid running game can bring (including helping to seal victories), so I expect a shake-up if things don't appreciably improve the rest of the way in 2010, especially given that this was an "area of focus" this past offseason.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.