Tailback running the show

The quarterback is more experienced, the offensive line bigger and older and the wide receivers healthier.

But make no mistake about it — no matter how much the Northwestern football team’s offense has changed, the entire unit’s output once again will hinge on one person: Damien Anderson.

The junior tailback finished with 1,128 yards in 1999 and will need to perform as good, if not better, for the Wildcats to better last year’s 3-8 mark.

“He’s going to need to be successful for us to do well,” quarterback Zak Kustok said. “Damien’s a great back. He’s going to be one of the best backs in the Big Ten, maybe one of the best in the country.”

Anderson was one of the most prolific running backs in the conference last year. In 12 games, he carried the ball 306 times, behind only Ron Dayne of Wisconsin and Thomas Hamner of Minnesota.

With those numbers in mind, NU’s opponents will enter the 2000 season knowing they need to stop Anderson.

The Cats were able to move the ball last year behind the 208-pound back, but the rushing attack had a few fatal flaws. Anderson averaged 3.7 yards per carry — well below the numbers put up by the other top backs in the Big Ten. And coupled with 21 turnovers, the Cats were left with a grounded offense.

“We can always play more physical. We just have to cut down on mistakes,” freshman center Austin King said. “Damien works his butt off, and (the offensive line) appreciates that.”

Because of its inconsistency and turnovers, the offense struggled to put points on the board in ’99. Opponents routinely stacked eight or nine men on the line and dared the inconsistent NU passing game to beat them.

More often than not, the Cats couldn’t do anything to counter. They scored only 12 offensive touchdowns in 11 games, in part because of a young and inexperienced corps of players.

The good news for the Cats’ offense is that its young players have gained experience.

Along with Anderson, NU returns seven starters on offense, as well as a large group of wide receivers that was never at 100 percent last year.

Because of his transfer from Notre Dame, Kustok couldn’t start practice last season until the summer. But when he finally got his eligibility and earned the starting job midway through the year, Kustok never saw a full complement of wide receivers in a game.

“Now all of us are together, all of us are healthy,” Kustok said. “I don’t think there was one game that I had (wide receivers) Sam Simmons, Teddy Johnson, and Jon Schweighardt together.”

Simmons is still recovering from a broken collarbone suffered during the homecoming win over Iowa but should be ready when the season starts. If the wideouts can stay healthy, Kustok may be able to settle into more of a rhythm with his receivers, much like the one he had in the spring game with Johnson, who caught 10 passes in the game.

In addition Anderson should be able to see more daylight out of the backfield. The Cats bring back four starters on the line, and an extensive weight training program during the offseason has given them more bulk.

“You can see the difference in some of the guys from spring ball,” King said. “We lift three, four times a week. We really haven’t had a week off since the season.”

With the extra weight and experience, NU may be able to provide precious additional seconds in the pocket for Kustok, who spent much time in 1999 scrambling from pressure.

And if the Cats can successfully surround Anderson and stay healthy — unlike last year — then they may succeed in competing with some of the higher-scoring rivals throughout the year.

“If we have to score 50 points to win,” Kustok said, “that’s what we’re going to do.”