A Reel Steal

Junji Noda Gameday Staff

Quite frankly, Randy Walker admits that he’s a copycat. Asked about his newly installed offense, the Northwestern coach fesses up.

“If I see a good play on tape, I’ll steal it,” Walker said proudly. “There are no copyright laws in our business.

“It’s like a kid in a candy store. If you investigate things, you can find a lot of stuff that looks good. It all looks good. Man, this looks good; well, this looks good.”

During the offseason, Walker and his coaching staff strolled from city to city, visiting numerous coaches and colleges. They rolled and studied tape after tape. Walker imitated Clemson’s no-huddle offense and parts of the St. Louis Rams’ and Purdue’s spread-out, four-wideout passing games.

The blend — among other plays — has completely changed the direction of NU’s offense this year. And thus far the Cats have racked up 2,192 yards ­ compared to last year’s 3,131 ­ and have already scored 30 more points than 1999. Their quarterback, Zak Kustok, is third in the Big Ten in total yards. Their running back, Damien Anderson, is rushing for more than 150 yards a game.

Even so, Walker insists, “We’re still doing a lot of things that we’ve always done. I’d say about 70 percent.”

The search for the other 30 percent began with a visit to the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams. John Matsko, the Rams’ offensive line coach and assistant head coach, had almost 20 Division I football coaches come calling in the spring. They wanted a piece of the magic of the Rams’ potent offense.

Walker was one of them.

Not that Walker and Matsko were strangers. As a graduate assistant, Matsko coached Walker in his final year at Miami University in 1975. The two went their ways, but reunited at North Carolina, where they coached together for seven years.

One of Walker’s goals was to learn how the Rams brought in a spread offense, with Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner in the pocket. The spread, which Purdue runs under Heisman Trophy candidate Drew Brees, functions with fou, and sometimes fiv, wide receivers.

Matsko said the Rams derived the explosive passing offense from current head coach Mike Martz, who came from the Washington Redskins in 1998.

Walker wanted a piece of the best, but he doesn’t readily divulge the specifics of what he took.

“It’s great when you have friendships like that,” Walker said. “We got some things here and there …”

This season, Matsko has followed Walker and NU through TV highlights, watching bits and pieces of the games. What stuck in his mind was quarterback Zak Kustok throwing the game-tying touchdown pass to Derrick Thompson against Wisconsin two weeks ago.

Matsko also witnessed Kustok’s arching touchdown pass to Teddy Johnson against Michigan State last week.

Any resemblance of Matsko’s offense?

“No, no, no. Those plays are all Randy’s plays and (NU offensive coordinator) Kevin Wilson’s plays,” Matsko said. “(The Rams) have been successful so far. I mean, we’ve got a very talented football team. Looks to me like Northwestern’s got playmakers making plays up there. It takes all 11 guys to make one play work and it looks like to me, Northwestern’s executing with all 11 guys getting the job done. It’s a team effort.”

While the Evanston campus took a week-long spring break in mid-March, Walker kept busy.

Next stop: Clemson, S.C.

Clemson, with its explosive no-huddle offense, is averaging 47.6 points and 514 yards per game , focusing primarily on run-and-shoot quarterback, Woody Dantzler.

And Walker found himself in another candy store.

“We’re doing a lot of things they’re doing,” Walker said. “I wanted to see a couple of things. I wanted to see how they practiced as much as anything. We looked at some of their offense. I think there’s a play or two that we ‘plagiarized’ from them.”

It doesn’t end there. On a fourth-and-7 last week against Michigan State, Walker called for a fake field goal. The play — known as the “fumblerooski” — calls for the kick holder to fumble the ball purposely and hand it off to a running back in the confusion.

One of Walker’s opponents burned him on the play when he was at Miami. He reviewed the film and decided to include it into his playbook.

“I saw ’em do that, and I was like, ‘Whoa. Man. That’s a great play,'” he said. “I’m gonna use that play.”

Walker ran the same exact play four times at Miami ­ three of them resulting in touchdowns and the other for a first down. In 1997 against Virginia Tech, Walker and Miami converted the play into a 40-yard touchdown run and stole the game.

NU tailback Damien Anderson, who took the fumblerooski last week, lost six yards.

Scary thing is, though, Walker sounds as though he has more magic left in his pocket.

“There’s a whole lot more to our playbook that we’re trying to run on both sides of the ball,” he said. “There’s some things in our playbook that maybe our personnel don’t execute too well — so we don’t want to do that.”

Such was the case last year, when the Cats’ opponents expected NU to run the ball.

“We had our wide receivers hurt. So all we could do was run the ball, and a lot of teams were bringing eight people into the box,” left tackle Leon Brockmeyer said.

By the end of last season, NU had lost receivers Jon Schweighardt, Sam Simmons and Teddy Johnson to injuries, leaving little option but to hand the ball to Anderson.

Walker didn’t initiate the search and “plagiarize” other team’s plays just for the sake of it. NU lost junior fullback Mike Sherry for the season to injury. At the same time, Walker knew Schweighardt and Simmons would return in 2000.

So he formed his offense according to the pieces he had. It made more sense for Walker not to go with the two-back I-formation and instead spread the offense to open more running room.

“Last year, the safeties and linebackers pretty much knew we were running and everybody was in the box,” Anderson said. “Now, the linebackers and (the defensive backs) are checking for pass ­ taking a step backward, instead of taking a step forward. I think it’s changed the whole aspect of our team.”

Added Brockmeyer: “We can also see the blitzes better, if they’re cheating or not. We’re going to spread it out and someone’s going to have to cover the wide receivers. But if they’re not, we can see it, check for another play and we’ve got ’em burned.”

On the first day of spring ball in March, offensive line coach Aaron Kramer told his men that the Cats would go with a no-huddle, up-tempo offense.

Right tackle Jeff Roehl loved the idea, but knew he was running into trouble.

“The first thing all of the linemen are thinking is, ‘Oh my God, we better get in shape,'” Roehl said. “I probably had the hardest offseason in my life. I worked as hard as ever. If you would’ve asked me if I could do it last year, I would’ve said no way. You try so hard not to lose weight, but it’s inevitable at first that you lose a little bit. But you’ve just got to eat, lift, eat, lift.”

On the field, the linemen have to tackle and run to the next line of scrimmage. With the end of a play, the NU offensive linemen sprint and take their positions, preparing for another play call in a matter of seconds.

But these fellas weigh in at more than 280 pounds.

“I think that’s the secret to our success ­ that we have a really high conditioning level,” Roehl said.

Time after time, Walker has emphasized the importance of his players’ conditioning level. After almost every practice, Walker forces three laps of 100-yard sprints. Then some players hit the weight room.

Last year, NU finished 3-8. This year, 4-1. All the extra hard work from last year is apparently beginning to pay off.

“Weights don’t lie. You load that bench press up it either goes in the air or it doesn’t,” Walker said. “The stopwatch doesn’t lie. That’s what you run. Don’t tell me I’m fast — here’s what you run. Don’t tell me you’re in shape, here’s the conditioning test. And it’s just accountability and guys who decide, ‘Hey, I’m just not going to settle for what I am. I’m going to be something better.'”

After beating Wi
sconsin and Michigan State in consecutive weeks, NU earned a No. 22 ranking in the Associated Press poll. For the first time in three years, NU’s AP ranking is catching up with that of U.S. News and World Report.

And the Cats’ success in the no-huddle owes much to their brains.

Yep. Nod your head. Smile.

The no-huddle assumes the offense can make split-second decisions. In case Kustok changes the play at the last second, the players must have the passing and rushing block routes memorized perfectly.

In fact, the decisive running play against Wisconsin was originally called to the right. Reading the flaws in the defense, Kustok “checked” the play, meaning the action would head left instead.

Left guard Lance Clelland did his duty, and in went Anderson for a touchdown and the upset.

“Our student-athletes are typically brighter than at some schools, so we tried to maximize conditioning, which we could always do, and let the intelligence come in,” Wilson said. “We think we’re a smart team, so we thought, ‘Let’s do something that could give us an edge.'”

Added Roehl: “We’re all pretty smart guys. That’s one of the benefits of going to Northwestern.”

On the two practice fields next to Ryan Field, the Cats honed their newly installed offense throughout spring practice. At first, Wilson had concerns.

Would this really work?

“We had to hit it on the run in the spring,” Wilson says. “Matter of fact, when we took the no-huddle, our concern was if it looks ugly early, they’ll panic.”

But such worries evaporated quickly enough to have Wilson nodding: “Hey, this is all right.”

“We picked up the game really fast and we felt good about it right away,” Johnson said. “We’ve got no freshmen (in the wide receving team). Everybody here’s supposed to be smart.”

Despite all the scouting and mimicking that he’s done, Walker takes no credit for his team’s dominance with the ball.

“I didn’t lift one weight. As you can tell, I didn’t run one sprint,” Walker said. “All I know is that if those same bunch of guys came back this year, we were going to win three again — that’s about how good we were last year. For us to win more than three we had to do something about our talent and ability level.

“And our kids worked real hard.”

Matsko and Walker have known each other for more than 25 years. The two had much to share in a sit-down chat during Walker’s visit in March.

One of Walker’s first questions was: “How did you go from 4-12 to the Super Bowl championship? What did you guys do?’

“When I asked him that question, he looked at me and said, ‘Randy, you already know the answer — you know the answer,'” Walker said. “And he was right.”

At the pace they’re going, Walker’s 2000 Cats may become a collegiate version of the 1999 Rams — the gotta-love-’em underdogs that everyone wants to avoid.

“I don’t know if it’s an offensive revolution or not,” Purdue coach Joe Tiller said. “Certainly Northwestern has played outstanding football and scored a lot of points. We applaud that here at Purdue. Of course, mind you, we’re not necessarily looking forward to playing them because of the success they’re having.”

“It’s sort of new to this league, with the way they run their offense with the no-huddle,” added Michigan State coach Bobby Williams, who gave up four touchdowns and three field goals to the Cats last week. “That offense they’re running is really going to give people some problems.”

Walker took the chance. The task now is to continue what he has done.”What I can say to Randy and Kevin Wilson is to keep putting kerosene into that fire ­ keep that fire burning,” Matsko said. “Keep that offense going.”