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), 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 team.
Stephen Simmons (Junior)
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.
Jacob Schmidt (Sophomore)
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.
Scott Concannon (Sophomore)
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 back.
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 Freshman)
Fields is the most promising RB option, running for 48 yards and 2 TDs against Towson on just 6 carries, and he 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 year.
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).
One issue of concern 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.
Regarding 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 2009.
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.
The offensive line should be improved from last season's trial by fire, but questions remain around their run-blocking ability after a sub-par 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 time.
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.