Running into problems

The Wildcats' win over Miami gives them a pair of streaks: Two straight wins, and four straight weeks where they struggled running the ball. It's been since Eastern Michigan (left) that Northwestern's running backs had much success. And while NU deserves kudos for the win, there is still a distressing trend taking place on the ground. Purple Reign takes a closer look.

Like a good customer service staff, Northwestern has been good about answering its fans' inquiries this season. There were plenty of people asking plenty of questions heading into the 2009 campaign, and the Wildcats responded – rather promptly – with some answers.

From kicker to quarterback to running back, question marks abounded at the outset of the season. Graduation ravaged NU's roster, especially on offense, and new faces – or old ones doing new things – were going to be all over the field.

One of the preseason's eminent questions was about Northwestern's kicking game – how would the Cats handle losing Amado Villarreal, who hit better than 88 percent of his field goals last season?

Well, Villarreal's replacement, Stefan Demos, has been better than serviceable. On the season, Demos is nine-of-10, including a last-second, game-winning kick to down Eastern Michigan in Week 2. He was also a perfect four-for-four in NU's 27-21 win over Purdue, a game in which NU struggled mightily to score touchdowns. His performance against the Boilermakers earned him Co-Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week honors.

So yeah, Demos took a big, fat eraser to those question marks.

There were also questions about Mike Kafka. Would he be able to replicate (or at least imitate) C.J. Bacher's prolific 2007 and 2008 seasons? Or would Kafka replay his own 2006 season when, as a freshman, he started four games and threw five picks and just one touchdown.*

* Kafka's last game before getting benched in 2006 was a true nightmare. He was nine-for-21 against Nevada, one of the worst games any of us have likely ever seen. That day Kafka completed 43 percent of his passes, threw three picks and no TDs, and gained just 122 yards through the air – 39 of which came on one play. It all added up to a 22.4 quarterback rating. Kudos to anyone who can find a complete-game QB rating lower than 22.4. And double kudos to anyone who can find a quarterback who had such a game and still started the next week.

Well, while there are still haters out there, and while Kafka struggled a bit against lowly Miami on Saturday, the first six games would have to be considered a success. He is completing 66.8 percent of his passes; he ranks No. 29 in the nation in total offense; he has five passing TDs to four picks. That's not an incredible ratio, but throw in four rushing touchdowns, and it'll do.

Kafka has a pair of 300-yard passing games, and in a season where No. 1 tailback Stephen Simmons has been 100 percent in just two games, it's Kafka who has kept the team afloat.

But while many questions have been resolved, there is one that most certainly hasn't. And that's at running back.

Wildcat fans were justifiably weary about what would transpire at running back this season. With the graduation of four-year stud Tyrell Sutton and back-up Omar Conteh, there was a palpable void in the backfield. The leading returning rusher was Simmons, who had just 178 yards – and averaged less than three yards per carry – last season.

The other backs on the depth chart entering the season were true freshman Arby Fields and sophomores Jeravin Matthews and Scott Concannon – a trio with zero career carries. Rounding out the young and unproven backfield was sophomore Jacob Schmidt, whose career numbers before 2009 could be counted with a few fingers: Two carries, four yards.

So that people were a bit anxious about the backfield corps was understandable. The presumed starter had a pretty pedestrian 2008 season, and the top four backups had a combined two carries for four yards.

Well, the angst has been justified. Indeed, Northwestern is not running the ball well at all. At least not right now. And there was no more obvious example than Saturday against Miami (Ohio), when the Cats had on of their most woeful running performance to date – and that's saying something.

The team netted 128 yards, but it took 41 carries to get there – that's 3.1 yards per carry. Kafka led the team in rushing with 53 yards, and he was the only Wildcat to score on the ground; he had a pair of rushing TDs. Take out Kafka's performance, and NU's running backs had 26 carries for 75 yards, less than three a pop, and no one who had more than one carry averaged more than 2.9 yards. Yeesh.

Afterward, Fitz addressed the running game problems. At length:

Offensively, we need to improve in a lot of areas. Number one, we have to run the football better, and that's by playing as one heartbeat up front. When we do that, we give ourselves a chance to execute, and truly have a dual threat offense. Right now that's not happening, so we have a lot of work to do in that area, and we'll get to work right away as we take a look at the video and give our guys a plan moving forward into this week….

I just want to run the ball. Obviously, we did not have the success that we were hoping to have today. It is simple…It's the coaches, the young men in the locker room, and all of us getting together to make sure we solve the problem the right way. When we do that, and we trust each other, we'll be fine. That's what it comes down to, trusting the call, trusting the plan, trusting yourself, and then trusting your technique. When we do that, we are good, we've proven that we can be.

You have to go back a few weeks for that proof. Because distressing running stats litter the '09 box scores. Let see…

* No Wildcat running back with more than one carry has averaged more than 3.0 yards per carry in since the Minnesota game, back on Sept. 26.

* In the past four weeks, the Wildcat running backs have teamed up for just two rushing touchdowns. (Kafka has four over that span.)

* No Wildcat running back has gotten more than 50 yards since Week 2 against Eastern Michigan.

* Not including the Towson game – in which NU outrushed the Tigers 221-65 – NU has been outrushed 651 to 516 by Eastern Michigan, Syracuse, Minnesota, Purdue and Miami.

(All stats hitherto are current. All subsequent stats are through Oct. 7.)

What's more, Syracuse ranks dead last in the Big East in rushing yards, and Minnesota is dead last in the Big Ten in rushing – and both teams outrushed Northwestern. What's more, Miami ranks No. 12 out of 13 teams in rushing in the MAC, yet NU had just a two-yard edge on the RedHawks.

So Northwestern has been getting out-performed on the ground despite playing a cross-section of the dregs of three different conferences' running teams. (Eastern Michigan, by the way, ranks sixth in its conference, as does Purdue.)

It gets worse: Minnesota and Purdue rank ninth and 10th in the conference in rushing yards allowed. Oh, and they're 10th and 11th in rushing TDs allowed. Yet NU was stymied.

And what's maybe even more distressing than NU's inglorious running stats so far is that NU still has to play five of the top seven rushing defenses in the Big Ten. Basically, it's not going to get any easier. And it has not been easy.

It isn't impossible – or even that hard – to make apologies for these lackluster stats. For starters, No. 1 back Stephen Simmons has been hurt since his 73-yard, two-TD performance against Easter Michigan. Since that game, he hadn't played until the Miami game, when he got two carries for two yards. So he's still obviously not 100 percent.

You could also say, Hey, with a quarterback like Kafka, NU doesn't need to get that much from its backs. Kafka's got some running back to his game, so if he gets the rushing touchdowns, so be it.

You could say that. Or you get be more dire about it. You could say that the schedule is heating up next week with a trip to East Lansing. That there are no more respites like last week's date with winless Miami. That Kafka finally showed some vulnerability – he was 15-for-31 against the RedHawks. That NU has yet to play the better rush defenses in the conference.

Indeed, you could say that this is a big problem.

Ideas? Comments? Things you want to see discussed? To reach Purple Reign, please write to northwestern.scout@gmail.com.


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