By Steve SilverThe Daily Northwestern
To Pat Fitzgerald, football is a game of inches.
Northwestern’s offense, ranked No. 82 nationally, has struggled to move the ball with a slew of redshirt freshman quarterbacks under center and a first-time offensive coordinator who has struggled to establish a running game in a spread formation.
But Fitzgerald is turning to the most experienced group of offensive players – the linemen – to improve NU’s production inch by inch.
“I think (the line needs) to get a lot better,” Fitzgerald said. “If you are going to win a game in the Big Ten, you have to win the battle of six inches. You have to move the line of scrimmage six inches one way or the other.”
The offensive line, which graduated just one starter, All-American Zach Strief, already has allowed eight sacks. It allowed 11 last year.
Perhaps the loss of Strief, who is currently with the New Orleans Saints, left a void in the line’s leadership and organization.
“(Strief) was a great player, a great friend and a great leader,” senior guard Joe Tripodi said. “Zach was really a coach on the field. He brought four guys who didn’t have much experience up front and we all jelled together.”
Yet despite returning a core of five upperclassmen, the line has yet to exhibit that jelling on the field. The offense is averaging just 16 points per game, a mark that places them No. 100 in the nation.
“I just don’t think they’ve found their groove yet,” said quarterback Andrew Brewer, who was sacked three times in last week’s 33-7 loss to Penn State. “I don’t think they’re any worse than they were last year. I think they’re as good, if not better. They’re just not playing as consistently.”
Although the offensive line entered the season with a promising outlook, injuries have plagued the unit.
Senior right tackle Austin Matthews broke his foot during preseason camp, which forced fellow senior Ryan Keenan to shift from his natural guard position to tackle. Sophomore Joel Belding has filled in for Keenan at left guard.
Matthews said being injured has allowed him to critique the line from the sidelines. His first: fundamentals.
“If you watch our games, we are never being beat physically,” said Matthews, who is expected to see some playing time Saturday. “It is sheer footwork. We need to go back to the basics of being O-linemen.”
But even with all the position juggling, the linemen are not making excuses for their play.
“The offensive line is five guys working together,” Tripodi said. “And a lot of the problem this year has been we’ll have four guys, but one guy will have a mental breakdown. That’s the stuff we have to get rid of. We all have to get on the same page. Once we do that, we’ll be really strong.”
Aside from the personnel changes on the field, the offensive line has also had to adjust to first-year offensive line coach Bret Ingalls.
Ingalls, who has been coaching at the collegiate level since 1984, comes to NU after a one-year stint as the tight ends and tackles coach at Miami (Ohio).
Many of the players said Ingalls has not changed much strategically, but they do feel he provides a new focus and attitude – exactly what Ingalls is trying to do.
“It’s all about having an attitude up front,” Ingalls said. “It’s about knocking some people off the ball. And unfortunately in some of our earlier games, that is not what has happened.
“(We’re working on) coming out here in practice and playing with an attitude, so that on Saturday we can carry it out on the field.”
Reach Steve Silver at [email protected]