At the start of the season, head coach Pat Fitzgerald referred to his wide receivers as the “no-name receivers” to the rest of the team, highlighting the comparatively small amount of name recognition that these players enjoy.
With questions about the skill positions on offense at the beginning of the year, the “no-name receivers” have carved out a place for themselves in this wild season. With a regressing team defense and suspect run game, Northwestern now relies heavily on the passing game to make up the gaps for every first down, every score.
Coach Fitzgerald feels that their humility helped them take the lack of attention in stride, and use it to get better.
“They’re a group of guys that want to go out and help our football team win. Obviously when you graduate three of your most prolific receivers in program history, there’s not a lot known about who the next group is,” Fitzgerald says. “The group of guys just want to help our football team win, and that humility is what’s impressive to me.”
The drop-off hasn’t been too severe; a short-to-mid-passing game has buoyed the offense, and seniors Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer have become reliable targets for quarterback Mike Kafka in their final seasons. Markshausen, in particular, has been a pleasant surprise this season, ranking second in the Big Ten for most receptions this season with 76 grabs. Coming into the season, Markshausen, a former walk-on, had one reception to his career, while Brewer is finally healthy after being dogged by a broken arm and a persistent knee injury through the past two seasons.
But beyond those two, the receiving corps as a whole have echoed the values of humility and positivity and stepped up as a group. Ask Sidney Stewart about the team’s struggles offensively, and it’s all about the group and team.
“Give the credit to our defense for coming through when it matters,” Stewart says. “For us, it’s about playing our role well, be it leading the safeties out of position or blocking on run plays.”
Sophomore superback Drake Dunsmore, heavily involved in the passing game, points to the leadership of last year’s stars. “[Last year] was a great opportunity to learn from the veterans and seniors, how to watch tape, how to improve,” Dunsmore says.
And in some ways, the lack of fanfare heading into the season was probably a blessing in disguise. “Since we were no-name guys, we didn’t really have targets on our back coming into the season,” Dunsmore says.
The growth of the inexperienced receiving corps brings a welcome punch to the offense where everything else has regressed. With only one game left, having a full 11 games under the belt and a struggling run game, clamoring for a pass-heavy game out of the shotgun spread was echoing through Wildcat Nation. Normally the optimist, Coach Fitzgerald lamented that “if we have to throw 175 times in a game, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Don’t think the pressure gets to the purple-clad pass-catchers, though. Their preparation has been comprehensive all season, with their minds focused on the approaching game. Says Markshausen, “we need to be persistent, consistent, and perform to our potential; we can’t be riding this up-and-down roller coaster.” In trying to get someone, anyone to talk about ideas of a bowl game, or the rest of the season, not one receiver spoke out of Coach Fitzgerald’s familiar clichés:
Said Stewart, “I don’t want to even talk about that. We’re just looking ahead to the next game and hopefully we can come out well on offense.”
Dunsmore: “We just want to get through this week.”
And the Cinderella story of the season, Markshausen, perhaps summed it up best, “Go 1-0 (each week). Win every game. Focus on the family, and go out and have fun.”