As the legendary New York Yankee Yogi Berra would say, it was déjà vu all over again.
Three Big Ten games played, three games where Northwestern’s rushing attack was as visible as Rush Limbaugh at an NAACP rally. Three games that saw the Wildcats’ running backs leave about as much of a dent in the opposing defense as a music major would in the Rock. Nearly halfway through their conference schedule, the Northwestern ground game is as fearsome as a Plant-People Interactions midterm.
This week, ahead 7-0 at halftime in the kind of smash-mouth, low-scoring, defense-dominated game where a robust running game can seal an outcome and break an opponent, the ‘Cats should have charged out of the tunnel committed to the run and prepared to grind out the clock against a Spartan squad not exactly hospitalizing opposing running backs (325 yards given up in two games against Wisconsin and Illinois).
But they didn’t. Instead the ‘Cats passed the ball 26 times in the second half, and only four of their 10 running plays went to a tailback. They lost 24-14.
As a team, Northwestern ran for just 79 yards, and 18 of their 29 rushes were by their quarterback. Mike Kafka has done an marvelous job at making everyone realize that he has a right arm that is capable of throwing the ball to receivers, but the coaching staff still insists on running those painfully predictable—and rarely successful—quarterback options. Instead, they should give him the freedom on multiple receiver sets to decide when to take off on broken pass plays where multiple receivers have taken the defense downfield and away from the ball. The halfbacks, on the other hand, must just not be on good terms with Fitz. Two rushes for five yards for Arby Fields, who has shown the most burst and best elusiveness of any of the horses in Northwestern’s running back stable? That’s unacceptable. Stephen Simmons didn’t get many more chances, but he made the most of those he did, churning out a respectable 4.6 yard average on his five carries, a grueling workload to be sure.
The bottom line is that you can’t win in the Big Ten without a mildly respectable running game. Northwestern is dead last in the conference in rushing, and the coaching staff doesn’t have the offensive personnel to be so predictable in continuing to dial up pass plays. In three conference losses, they have rushed for 52, 64 and 79 yards. When the team was running an exciting spread offense in the early 2000s under Randy Walker, the dynamic passing attack opened up running lanes, and the ‘Cats regularly generated a powerful ground game. Now, Fitzgerald seems to have given up on his backs’ ability to be meaningful contributors. During the past few games, the offense has largely ignored the run in favor of a more coastal attack.
Fitzgerald’s hesitancy to commit to the running game is — to some extent — defensible. He lost a former All-Big Ten running back — as well as every other starting offensive skill player — and Fields, Simmons and the rest haven’t exactly distinguished themselves when they’ve gotten their few chances. But there was no excuse to give up on it so soon Saturday. Armed with a 7-0 halftime lead and a defense that, perhaps galvanized by their inspiring goal line stand on State’s opening drive, was finally playing the way it was supposed to, Northwestern should have put on their helmets and played the game in the trenches.
One thing, though, is certain. If Northwestern — which has showed periodic potential on defense — can become a truly dominant D, it must also get a more dependable and productive running game in order to eat the clock up and keep the defense off the field and fresh. And improving this feeble rush attack can derive only from smarter play-calling from the coaches and stronger performances from the players.
Otherwise, it will be déjà vu all season long.