Air attack looks to get off the ground

Zach Silka

In Northwestern’s final regular-season game against Illinoislast season, quarterback Brett Basanez didn’t throw a single passin the second half. NU won the game on the legs of running backsJason Wright and Noah Herron, but the Wildcats likely won’t havethe same luxury this season.

After a struggling quarterback and depleted receiving corps lefta passing game ranked second-to-last in the Big Ten last year,Basanez and the Cats’ offense have much room for improvement.

NU passed for a meager 163.2 yards per game in the 2003 season,just two yards per game in front of last-place Iowa.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” NU coach Randy Walker said.”We did not execute well in any aspect of the passing game lastyear. We did not protect as well as you need to, our receivers werenot sound and disciplined and weren’t consistent, and we didn’tmake the throws you need to make. When you put all 11 of thoseaspects together, and it wasn’t the passing game we want tohave.

“We’ve challenged every man — from the offensive linemen, tothe receivers and backs, and the quarterback — to improve yourskill and get better at what you do.”

NU offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar said he believes thepassing game has shown signs of improvement in spring practice.

“At the end of (last season) due to injuries and a lot of otherthings, it did not have the consistency that we would have liked,”he said. “We’re trying to balance up the offense, maintain thefundamentals, and work hard on mastering the skills and techniquesthat we ask our guys to do.”

Even NU’s strongest returning unit, the offensive line,struggled to protect Basanez last season as they opened up holesfor the Cats’ running backs.

“The hardest skill and the last skill to come along in anoffensive lineman is pass protection,” Walker said. “We weren’t avery good pass protection team, especially early last year. But Isee a lot of the right things in place and their growth.”

Center Trevor Rees, guards Matt Ulrich and Ikechuku Ndukwe andtackles Zach Strief and Trai Essex gelled last season to become oneof the strengths of the offense.

“Everyone always says it starts on the line,” Strief said. “Thebiggest thing with us is that we kind of have that chemistry now. Ithink (the line) is going to be one of the biggest, if not thebiggest, part of the offense this year.”

The offensive line should also pay off in the running game.Although the Cats lost second-team All-Big Ten back Wright tograduation, NU does have a worthy replacement in senior Herron, aversatile back who often lined up at wide receiver last season.

Herron rushed for 739 yards last season on 119 carries — 6.2yards per rush — and added 228 yards receiving on 19 catches asWright’s backup.

“I get a lot of questions about how you fill those shoes, butit’s not even about filling shoes,” Herron said. “You always findsomebody that is a different kind of runner but gets the job done.For me, I have to do what I do and focus on my strengths, and Iknow that’s going to help our team.”

What will particularly help the team is having a healthy, fullwide receiving core to start the season.

Senior Ashton Aikens and junior Mark Philmore both missedsignificant time last season with injuries.

“Ashton and Mark being out virtually the last six games of theseason really hurts,” Walker said. “Those are your two best guys,and they need to get back and healthy.”

The depleted receiving core didn’t help Basanez, who struggledthroughout the Big Ten season. After leading all freshman signalcallers in passing yards in 2002, Basanez threw for only 147 yardsper game with four touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

With the rest of NU’s offensive units seemingly coming togetherin the spring season, Basanez could be the deciding factor in theCats’ offensive success in 2004.

“It goes with the position, but Brett has to be a leader,”Walker said. “He’s coming into his junior year, he’s a two-yearstarter, and he needs to command the team.”