Kustok and supporting cast pass test following star senior’s injury

Matt Donnelly

DURHAM, N.C. – No, there’s not much that can be learned from a 44-7 blowout like Saturday night’s game at Wallace Wade Stadium. The Northwestern offense nearly set a new school record by gaining 638 yards, and the Cats’ defense held Duke’s offense to less than half of that total. For coach Randy Walker, everything worked – now all that’s left is to take that success into next week.

But the Cats’ satisfaction following their rout went beyond the totals on the scoreboard. On the surface, the win was a production directed by last season’s heroes: quarterback Zak Kustok threw for 318 yards and running back Damien Anderson scored four of the Cats’ five touchdowns.

It’s been the crux of the Cats’ preseason hype: 10 of the 11 offensive players from last year’s Big Ten championship-winning team are returning, including Anderson, the leading returner in the Heisman Trophy voting. All this aside, Saturday’s game showed Duke that NU’s rep is backed by more than a crop of seniors.

Take NU’s receivers, who posed a threat to the Blue Devils secondary in every form on Saturday night. Even after go-to senior Sam Simmons left the game with a slight concussion early in the second quarter, the Cats marched out what seemed like an endless string of receivers that fueled an aerial attack matching the groundwork of Anderson and junior Kevin Lawrence.

Beyond Simmons, who caught two passes for 65 yards, Kustok found nine other wideouts in the game. More hopeful for the Cats’ future was the makeup of the receivers – half of them were underclassmen.

The performance was no surprise to Simmons, who watched the receiving core grow over the summer and at training camp in Kenosha, Wis. He’s also willing to admit that he might be a mentor to some of the team’s younger players.

“I think a few of them might look up to me, being the only senior (wide receiver) on the team and the go-to guy,” Simmons said. “I think they come to me if they need someone to talk to or show them the right thing to do.”

Simmons knows the value of having support on the sidelines. He’s yet to go through a season without injury, a problem he and the Cats’ coaching staff have dealt with in the past.

“It’s safe to say I’ve gone down a few times, but we need guys to step up in every position,” Simmons said. “I’m very satisfied with the way the young guys are playing. They’re playing hard and they’re playing very focused.”

Sophomore Kunle Patrick stepped in for Simmons and stepped up for the Cats, nearly eclipsing the senior’s receiving total with 64 yards. For Patrick, the role was a familiar one.

“Last year we’d do the same thing when Sam would get nicked up – I would go in,” he said. “It’s something we’d practiced with.”

Patrick put up similar numbers (67 yards on five receptions) against Purdue last season, a game that Simmons sat out after reaggravating a stress fracture in his back one week before against Indiana.

Simmons wasn’t the Cats’ only star to step off the field on Saturday. Anderson was shaken up after a run halfway through the third quarter. But the supporting cast came up big again. Kustok connected with freshman tight end Trai Essex and backup tailback Lawrence for consecutive first-down strikes of 13 and 12 yards, bringing the Cats into scoring position.

But the Cats’ passing attack had its faults. Kustok sent several receivers leaping for passes across midfield, serving up easy hits for Duke’s linebackers.

“Partly I missed them high, but their linebackers were getting a lot of depth,” Kustok said. “If I’d thrown the balls on line, the linebackers might have been able to pick them off, so I was throwing them a little high.”

Along with Jon Schweighardt, Patrick took several bruising hits on Saturday. He said that he’s aware of the problem, but it’s one that Kustok and the receivers can work out.

“It wasn’t a real concern,” said Patrick with a grin. “We know what’s happening, (Kustok) knows what’s happening. We’re going to take care of it in practice.”