NU running the gauntlet

When Heisman Trophy frontrunner Drew Brees steps on the turf at Ryan Field Oct. 14, no one will be happier to see him than the Northwestern defensive line.

Fresh off their stunning double-overtime upset of No. 7 Wisconsin Saturday, the Wildcats enter the practice week with the same objective — stopping the run. NU has reached the midpoint of a brutal four-game stretch in which it faces the country’s biggest, fastest and strongest runners.

First, it was the cutbacks of Heisman-hopeful LaDainian Tomlinson, who tallied 243 yards in a game where Texas Christian did not attempt a pass in the second half.

Next was the sheer quickness of Wisconsin’s Michael Bennett, who racked up a career high 293 yards and two touchdowns despite the loss.

And the bleeding doesn’t stop there, as No. 18 Michigan State’s behemoth tailback T.J. Duckett will be looking to bulldoze NU’s front four Saturday in East Lansing, Mich. If they can survive, the Cats return home to play Indiana and speedster Antwaan Randle El, who supplies nearly all the Hoosiers’ offense with his remarkable scrambling ability at quarterback.

“It doesn’t appear like we’ve learned a whole lot,” NU coach Randy Walker said of the past two games. “But I’m trusting that we’re going to make some gains in that area. We’re playing another great back — T.J. Duckett is as billed. He came out of high school as one of the most highly regarded prospects in a number of years and he’s lived up to all of that.”

Duckett carries a 6-foot-1, 252-pound frame that bears a striking resemblance to that of 1999 Heisman winner Ron Dayne. He has already totaled 491 yards in the Spartans’ three games, including 141 in Saturday’s 27-21 last-minute win over Notre Dame.

A second-team freshman All-American selection, Duckett came to Michigan State as both a linebacker and tailback. Yet as the season wore on, Duckett was used exclusively to backup starting running back Lloyd Clemons and rushed for 606 yards and 10 touchdowns.

“We have played two very good running backs, two very good football teams, two teams that really know how to run it and we’re getting ready for No. 3,” Walker said. “We need to take some steps in the right direction this week.”

After two solid efforts against Northern Illinois and Duke, TCU and Wisconsin have put up staggering numbers. NU allowed 739 yards on the ground against TCU and Wisconsin, compared to only 156 against Northern Illinois and Duke. Overall, NU’s rush defense is ranked 109th out of 114 Division I-A teams.

In large part the totals put up by Tomlinson and Bennett were a result of NU’s aggressiveness on defense. With speedy linebackers and defensive ends, the Cats employ Walker’s “reckless abandonment” philosophy, going after ball carriers with full force.

The method has worked on occasion — most notably in Dwayne Missouri and Kevin Bentley’s tag-team hit and fumble recovery on Saturday that resulted in an NU touchdown. However, the defense has suffered at times, often choosing to go after the wrong player on option plays.

“We take chances as a defense, we pack people in there and blitz a little more often than some defenses have,” Missouri said. “We’re going to hit the holes as soon as we see the ball is snapped, so that kind of opens up some of the cutback lanes. With guys like Bennett, when they’ve got speed around the corner like that, you’ve got to take a pretty good angle.”

Although Duckett’s size and strength are menacing, facing a back with less speed will be to the NU line’s advantage. With Bennett outrunning every player on the field, NU had only a split second to react to developing plays.

It may take an army to bring Duckett down, but the Cats feel they have the quickness and the manpower to do so.

“I think it probably matches us up better (than Wisconsin) because we know we’ve got some pretty good guys on defensive line,” Missouri said. “We’re not going to be too concerned about the cutback. We’ll just have the linebackers picking up in the holes pretty hard, defensive linemen holding their holes pretty hard. It should be a lot better for us.”