Front lines need better

Northwestern's front lines struggled mightily Saturday. They'll need to step up fast with a trip to Madison this weekend.

Every Northwestern student filling Ryan Field to the brim knew the name Braxton Miller. They probably all watched the highlights, saw the stats and understood how the Cats' chances of pulling the upset dipped drastically if he came out with a big game. Few knew the name Carlos Hyde.

Northwestern controlled Miller, limiting him to just 203 passing yards, no touchdowns, a pick and two fumbles. It came at the expense of allowing a big night to Hyde, the senior running back who went off for 168 yards and three rushing scores. Hyde was a replacement for injured starter Jordan Hall, and the Wildcats entered Saturday having outrushed all four of their opponents this season. What happened?

The interior defensive line was pushed around all game, save for Will Hampton. The A and B gaps were open throughout the night, letting the Buckeyes reach the second level on runs with ease, and there was no push on passing downs from anywhere other than Tyler Scott's left defensive end spot.

Pat Fitzgerald told reporters afterward not to look into one game too much. But against Wisconsin, one of the best ground attacks in the country, one game can turn to a worrying trend in a hurry. Northwestern will again be without Sean McEvilly this weekend, and Badger running backs Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement combine for 1,505 yards (an 8.1 yard per carry average) and 15 touchdowns through five games. Worse, Wisco's O-line ranks among the best in the country, and is allowing just one sack per game.

Then there's the Wildcats' other line, which allowed five sacks on Trevor Siemian and couldn't get the running game going all night. Jack Konopka looked rough on the edge before enduring a knee injury, and the outside was muddled by Ohio State's overpowering group of linebackers. Football games are won and lost in the trenches, the tried and true saying goes, and while the late-game play calling didn't do them any favors, the Cats certainly lost Saturday's game up front on both sides of the ball.

Wisconsin will pose a serious threat if this team can't recover. Northwestern's four-end cheetah package only works if the defensive tackles open up the inside on non-passing downs, and the cornerbacks are still too shaky to be trusted without a good pass rush affecting Joel Stave.

It forces the question that's uncomfortable to answer right now: are the Wildcats good enough up front to compete against better Big Ten offensive and defensive lines? The front four had no problem hurrying nonconference opponents, but it disappeared against the vaunted Buckeyes pass protection. And unless the defensive tackles have a miraculous turnaround against one of the most physical teams in the country, the defensive line will again rely on Tyler Scott and Dean Lowry to carry it. A bounce-back outing from either one of these units would mean more than a big game from Venric Mark or even a stable performance from Dwight White or Matt Harris.

Saturday's game is huge for the entire team. It's a statement for the offensive and defensive lines.

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