UP CLOSE: Herron, Herbert enjoy career days filling in for injured starters

Tania Ganguli

At the start of the second half of Northwestern’s game against Penn State on Saturday, running backs Noah Herron and Jason Wright both lined up on offense.

Wright went in and out of the lineup for most of that drive, but the Wildcats never gave him the ball. Instead they gave it to Herron. NU coach Randy Walker said he would use running back Terrell Jordan in place of Wright, but Jordan was suffering from a hamstring injury. Without a slowed Wright and no Jordan Herron took over and was almost too much for Penn State’s defense to handle.

And with three top receivers injured, receivers Shaun Herbert and Brandon Horn came through.

“We’re down three wide receivers and one of the best tailbacks I’ve ever coached,” Walker said. “And (the players) don’t make excuses.”

Walker didn’t play Jordan, saying he was “enough off-speed he’s probably ineffective,” but Wright saw limited action. The first time Wright touched the ball on Saturday he caught a 39-yard pass from quarterback Brett Basanez and took off toward the endzone. But when Penn State’s Yaacov Yisrael tackled him, the ball came loose and cornerback Rich Gardner jumped on it.

Walker could tell that Wright wasn’t himself.

“You could just tell early on we were probably better with Noah, we had prepared for that eventuality all week,” Walker said. “You could tell on that first catch. If that’s Jason, that’s in the zone.”

But while the wounded Wright was “dragging on” as Walker said, Herron took over and put up a career high of 180 rushing yards. Herron was responsible for all but five of the first downs gained on the ground. And although he didn’t have a touchdown, he carried the ball 35 times for an average of 5.1 yards per carry.

“We knew Jason was day-to-day. You kind of go with the flow,” Herron said. “Jason’s been here playing very well for us. You just wait your turn, and when it comes you better be ready to play.”

The last time Herron had that many carries he was in high school.

But all the carries weren’t always perfect. A third quarter drive in which the Cats had four plays in a row for at least 10 yards, ended when Herron got tangled up with Gilles Lezi and fumbled at Penn State’s nine yard line. It was one of very few mistakes Herron made during the game.

That third-quarter drive also featured a 14-yard catch by Horn. With Mark Philmore, Ashton Aikens and Roger Jordan sidelined, sophomore Horn and redshirt freshman Herbert stepped in.

“Those guys were on the sideline motivating us,” Horn said. “Me and Herb(ert) knew we had to step up and play our best game.”

The pair combined for 135 of NU’s 188 receiving yards. A week after making his first career catch at Purdue, Herbert made seven catches for 63 yards. Forty-one of Horn’s 72 receiving yards came on a touchdown pass from Basanez after Yisrael tipped the ball Horn’s way.

“They could easily have said woe is us, guys are hurt, this or that, but they just kept coming to play,” Walker said. “That’s what good football teams try to do, they have guys step up.”