Commentary: Is NU's Running Game Strong Enough to Contend in the Conference?
by Jonathan Hodges
Northwestern Wildcats football started off the 2009 season with a strong
performance on the ground with 54 rushes for 221 yards (4.1 yards per carry),
and that despite facing a team that knew what was coming (NU threw the ball only
22 times). But, of course, all of that came against a lower level of
competition in an FCS school (Towson) who only dressed 57 players, compared to
71 who saw the field for the Wildcats (with more than 30 more on the sideline).
For an offense that lost its top two running backs from a year ago, in addition
to its other offensive skill position players, the questions surrounding the
2009 offense remain.
The biggest one: Is Northwestern's running game
strong enough to contend in the conference? Despite what teams are doing
throwing the football in the spread offense, a strong running game is still
necessary to be a contender in the Big Ten conference race. In the 'Cats' most
successful years since the mid-nineties, they have had a strong runner leading
the pack: Darnell Autry in 1995-96, Damien Anderson in 2000, and Tyrell Sutton
in 2005 and 2008. And a glance at the list of Big Ten champions over the past
decade or so is full of teams with a strong running game. Although the Wildcats
have a competitive stable of running backs, the fact is that nobody has stood
out enough in practice or in week one to take over as the leader of this
Stephen entered this year as the most experienced RB and had
the most carries in NU's first game of 2009 (18 carries for 77 yards). Although
he's a very fast player, many question if he can be the full-time running back
given his short stature (5'8") and his unimpressive statistics from last season,
when he filled in as the starter for NU's final three regular season contests.
His stat line from those games: 58 carries for 160 yards and two touchdowns (2.8
yards per carry).
No, he hasn't been given many chances to take over as
the starting RB, but the fact is that he's had at least four chances now and
hasn't been able to secure the spot. Meanwhile, looking back at the last time
the spot was up for grabs at NU (2005) it took just one game for Tyrell Sutton
to secure the position (the opening game of the 2005 season against Ohio when he
rushed 17 times for 104 yards and two TDs). He can definitely contribute (he
did have a kickoff return for a TD in 2007), but it's looking more doubtful that
he is the full-time answer.
Schmidt was a walk-on turned special teams contributor
last year who has earned his carries more than anyone else on the team. He was
played very sparingly on offense in 2008 (2 carries for 4 yards), but was able
to contribute in the Towson game this year (4 carries for 18 yards and 1 TD).
In fact, given the situations in which he was used in week one, he may be the
short-yardage back for this year's team. Again, an important contributor, but
likely not the every-down answer at the running back position.
Like Schmidt, a contributor on special teams
who has waited for his chance to carry the football and made the most of it
against Towson this year (7 carries for 32 yards and 2 TDs). He, like Schmidt,
is listed at 5'10" and is quick, but likely not an every-down
Jeravin Matthews (Sophomore)
Matthews has a ton of
speed and a lot of promise, but is stuck in a wide receiver's body (and was
listed as a WR until NU lost two RBs late last season). In NU's first game of
2009, he had 3 carries for 11 yards before injuring his ankle, which will likely
keep him from large-scale RB duties for at least a week or so. Plus, NU
utilized him in a hybrid WR/RB type role, putting him in motion a few times and
sending him on routes sometimes. Again, with his size and skillset, it is
unlikely he's a candidate for an every-down type of back, and there's always
that ankle to worry about now.
Arby Fields (True
Fields is the most promising RB option, running for 48
yards and 2 TDs against Towson on just 6 carries, and is drawing many
comparisons to Tyrell Sutton. He was held out of much of the game with cramps
due to a lack of hydration (which has been highly publicized), but still holds a
lot of promise. Even so, he has obviously failed to put a commanding hold on
the RB spot and remains listed as the backup going into week two of the
Alex Daniels is injured and out for the
season, true freshman Mike Trumpy seems destined to be redshirted, and superback
(fullback, really) Mark Woodsum got some carries in week one, but really only
because Fitz was looking to get anyone and everyone a chance to carry the
football at the end of the game. And, yes, there are QBs Mike Kafka and Dan
Persa, both noted runners (especially Kafka, who torched Minnesota on the ground
last year), but everyone knows that we won't see the quarterback turn into the
'Cats primary rusher this year due to potential injury issues (Kafka was pulled
out of the Towson games for a few plays after sustaining a hit while running).
Offensive Coordinator Mick McCall will use the QB run more often with these
dual-threat QBs, but don't expect to see a repeat of the game in the Metrodome
last year (Kafka had 27 carries).
concerning issue here may very well be the run-blocking performance of the
offensive line. Last year, Northwestern averaged 3.8 yards per carry on the
year: not a bad number, but not a great number, either. But take out Tyrell
Sutton's 4.8 yards per carry performance (184 carries for 890 yards on the year,
even while missing about four and a half games with an injury), and the number
looks much more pedestrian: 3.1 yards per carry (and that includes Kafka's
amazing 217 yard performance). One can attribute many of Sutton's yards to
"yards after contact," or, yards gained thanks to some great moves by him even
after defenders had their first shot.
Much of the blame for the lack of a
consistent running game in 2008 is likely directed to the young and relatively
inexperienced offensive line, which featured four redshirt freshmen, including
at the vital position of center. The OL was truly inducted in trial by fire and
they took their lumps as the year went on, especially against the tough
defensive fronts of the Big Ten.
Yes, they did a pretty impressive job in
the sacks allowed category, allowing 1.7 sacks per game (good for 45th in the
nation), but much of that can be attributed to senior QB CJ Bacher and the
offensive scheme. OC McCall set up the offense to get the ball in and out of
the hands of Bacher as quickly as possible, which turned out to be quite
effective. This, in effect, masked the young OL and allowed the passing game to
be effective even if the running game was not.
Going into 2009, NU lost
its experienced OL coach, Bret Ingalls, to the NFL's New Orleans Saints, and
promoted superbacks coach Adam Cushing to the job. Although the Wildcats
effectively returned all of its OL starters from a year ago, this is yet another
wrinkle thrown into the offense questions for the 2009 season.
their performance this year in week one, it was okay, but not overly impressive
against a lesser opponent. Yes, the 'Cats spent most of the game rotating
linemen in and out of the game, including true freshman Patrick Ward, but there
weren't always gaping holes for the RBs to run through. And the offense kept
the playbook pretty much closed running just a handful of plays, but this still
leads one to question the prognosis of NU's running game in
Northwestern will likely utilize a
running back by committee approach to this season: Simmons and/or Fields will be
the primary back, while Schmidt will likely be used in short yardage situations
and Matthews will be used on specific types of plays for his speed on the
outside. While this will fill the gap, it is a bit different than having one
dependable back like Sutton, Anderson, or Autry on whom to rely throughout the
year. There can't be much doubt that the NU running game suffered in 2007-08
when Sutton was held out of a handful of games with injuries.
offensive line should be improved from last season's trial by fire, but
questions remain around their run-blocking ability after a subpar 2008 season
and an average-looking 2009 opener. Things should also improve once the full
playbook is out and the starters get more significant playing time as a unit,
but then again the OL will be facing more formidable defenses by that
The verdict is not to expect anything spectacular from the NU
running game in 2009, barring a breakout performance over the next couple
weeks. And that is an unlikely scenario as true freshmen who emerge early in
the season (i.e. Tyrell Sutton) are hardly a dime a dozen (he ended up as NU's
second all-time leading career rusher). Expect the 'Cats to utilize all of
their RB options as the season goes on and to emphasize the passing game and the
QB portion of the running game, especially facing larger defenses that can more
easily take the RB out of the game.
Hopefully the Wildcats can make the
proper adjustments on offense to help open up the running game a bit more,
though, but NU fans will discover that a stretch of NFL-caliber running backs
for basically a decade (Anderson, Jason Wright, Noah Herron, and Sutton) is the
exception and not the rule.
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