Football: Wildcats win battle in trenches
September 27, 2012
For Northwestern, translating non-conference success to Big Ten victories rests on winning the battle up front — on both sides of the ball.
One month into the season, the Wildcats have done just that, readily establishing the line of scrimmage during their 4-0 start.
Perhaps the biggest concern for NU entering the season was its offensive line play. With two new starters, Chuck Porcelli and Jack Konopka, many expected the unit to struggle. In 2011, the Cats received dismal production from their running backs, as none even reached the 500-yard milestone.
Now, NU leans heavily on junior running back Venric Mark as a playmaker out of the backfield. Mark has averaged 5.5 yards per carry and is on pace to cruise past 1,000 yards on the season.
For Mark to succeed, though, the work begins up front. Though erratic in week one, the offensive line has generally held strong up front. Offensive line coach Adam Cushing credits the visible improvement to excellent communication.
“It’s a very tight-knit group,” Cushing said. “And so the guys being all on the same page is how you have any success at offensive line.”
The Boston College matchup functioned as a coming-out party for the line. Once the unit worked out the early-season kinks, it was able to dominate the Eagles front.
The Cats ran for 293 yards, with 106 from senior Mike Trumpy. The yardage came on 60 attempts, a clear indication that coach Pat Fitzgerald felt comfortable letting the offensive line dictate the action. In the game-sealing drive, culminating in a 27-yard scamper from Trumpy, the Cats did not attempt a pass. With Trumpy, Mark, Treyvon Green and Tyris Jones all seeing carries, the offensive line is aware of the backfield depth.
“We have a lot of special talent on this offense,” senior offensive lineman Patrick Ward said. “If we can give them the space and the time to make the most of those abilities then we’ll feel really good about ourselves.”
Cushing added that a solid offensive line prides itself on consistency. That may have been absent last year, and still, Cushing sees room for growth.
“I think the sky is the limit if we just continue to execute play in and play out," Cushing said. “We got to eliminate any little mistakes that we make and we got to execute fundamentally.”
In that same matchup, BC mustered only 25 yards on the ground. Running back Andre Williams had a rare 100-yard outing against the Cats last season, but this time NU dominated up front. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Deonte Gibson praised the leadership of the upperclassmen, namely Tyler Scott, Quentin Williams and Brian Arnfelt.
“They’re great leaders and in the offseason we just dedicated ourselves to being better,” Gibson said. “Because the year before, we were the most ridiculed base team (on NU).”
In the opener, Syracuse found considerable running room. Orange junior Prince-Tyson Gulley rushed for 50 yards on seven carries, including a 14-yard score between the tackles.
The unit somehow clamped down on Vanderbilt star Zac Stacy, holding the senior to a miserable 2.8 yards per carry on the night. Even though that same dominance carried over to the next two games, Gibson hopes the unit can retain its focus in the games to come.
“Once you become complacent, that’s when our downfall occurs,” Gibson said. “We’re a humble group and always believe we can get better every day.”