Riding on six cylinders (GAMEDAY)

Matt Baker

With Northwestern’s spread offense using four or five wide receivers each play, the Wildcats’ passing offense relies on diversity for success.

Fade patterns need tall players who can leap high and steal the ball from cornerbacks. Routes over the middle need strong, dependable players who can take a hit without losing the ball. Deep patterns need players who can lose defensive backs with shifty moves and blazing speed.

Luckily for junior quarterback C.J. Bacher and the nation’s eighth-ranked passing offense, the Cats’ six core wide receivers combine to have all of the above.

“We feel like we’ve got a lot of explosive weapons that bring something different to the table,” Bacher said. “You can go through and pretty much say one word for each of them.

“You’ve got Kim (Thompson), a speed guy. Eric (Peterman)’s kind of a speed and possession guy. Ross (Lane) is a playmaker. Jeff (Yarbrough)’s a speed guy. Tonjua (Jones) is a dependable guy who’s real explosive, can go up and get the ball. And Rasheed (Ward) is a quick guy that you can throw bubble screens to.”

Led by a fearless possession receiver, a precise route-runner, a team captain, a blazing speedster, a fifth-year senior and a former high school quarterback, NU’s receivers are having a breakout year.

Nine Cats have 10 or more catches; five have 20 or more. Through nine games, five different players have led NU in catches in a game, and eight are averaging more than 10 yards per catch. Three have topped 1,000 yards in their college careers.

The wide receivers’ diverse skill sets have fused to form one unit.

And at times when NU’s season seemed ready to tumble like an errant pass, the wide receivers have been on hand to make a diving grab to keep the Cats’ bowl hopes alive.

THE PLAYMAKER

Junior Ross Lane’s role on the team is simple: Get the job done.

When the game is on the line or the offense needs a spark, Lane’s 6-foot-3 frame slips through the secondary. He finds gaps in zone defenses. He makes a move to get by a cornerback.

Whatever it takes, he gets open.

“I think Ross just has a knack for finding open holes, a knack for making big-time catches and just a knack for catching the ball when it’s thrown to him,” wide receivers coach Kevin Johns said. “He does a good job with his hands and securing the football and just finding the open hole.”

Lane’s ability to find openings has helped him have a strong season, leading the team with six touchdown catches. His 518 receiving yards this season have put him over 1,000 in his NU career.

But Lane’s biggest moments have come in crunch time.

With 21 seconds left against Nevada, Lane dove for a ball in the end zone to score the game-winning touchdown.

In a back-and-forth game against Michigan State, he got open in the back of the end zone and yelled Bacher’s name to get his attention – and snagged his second touchdown of the game.

And he came through with a fourth-down catch and a game-tying touchdown in overtime against Minnesota to help give the Cats their second conference win of the year.

“I like being part of the big plays, the game-changing plays,” Lane said. “When things are on the line, I like being there making the play. I get more adrenaline in those situations, and it’s more fun. That’s the best part of being a football player.”

THE ROUTE RUNNER

Teammates and coaches all use the same phrase to describe junior Rasheed Ward.

“He probably runs the best routes out of any of our guys,” senior Tonjua Jones said.

Ward, who also leads the team in punt returns, approaches every route precisely the same way. He runs straight, keeps his body in line and keeps his shoulder pads down – until he makes his move.

Because he doesn’t give defenders any hint of what move is coming by dipping his arms or changing his speed, his cuts catch cornerbacks off-guard and allow him to get open.

“You have to really be into football to get it, but he does all the little football techniques the scouts look for,” junior Jeff Yarbrough said. “He’s real good at keeping his pads low, faking out the defender and just real good technique-wise.”

After appearing in all 24 games the past two years, Ward entered the season as an important part of the offense’s plans.

Johns said he’s followed through on his expectations by ranking fourth on the team in receptions and being one of three Cats with a catch in every game this year.

“I think Rasheed is a very prideful young man that plays hard and has a lot of pride in what he does and competes very well,” Johns said.

THE LEAPER

As a fifth-year senior and a team captain, Tonjua Jones is a player the rest of the team looks up to – literally.

“He can sky,” senior wide receiver Kim Thompson said. “He’s a guy that he can just come out here with his vertical and hit his head on the goal post.”

Jones’ 42.7-inch vertical leap – “The kid can jump out of a gym,” coach Johns said – is slightly less than Oakland Raiders rookie Calvin Johnson, the No. 2 pick of last year’s NFL Draft.

His enormous ups combined with a 6-foot-2 frame have made him a big target for Bacher on lob passes – like his 1-yard touchdown grab against Nevada.

“I don’t know if height is necessarily the biggest advantage, but being able to get the ball out of the air is a big advantage,” Jones said. “A lot of times DBs are taught to play the ball at its highest point, but if your highest point is higher than theirs, of course you have an advantage.”

Although he has only 14 receptions this season, Jones also contributes to the offense as a team captain, giving pointers to younger players and keeping the mood upbeat.

“He really brings leadership and a positive energy flow anytime you’re around him,” junior Eric Peterman said. “He’s just a guy that loves to talk, loves to interact with people. Anytime you’re around him, he’s going to talk to you, and he’s going to try to put you in a good mood – and usually he does.”

THE FLASH

Although junior Jeff Yarbrough has only 16 catches this season, he’s shown flashes of the dangerous speed that makes him a threat on reverses or routes over the middle.

“Against Michigan State when he caught that ball and just ran away from everybody, I think you could really see it there,” Peterman said.

“Once he gets into the open field, he’s tough to catch. He can make a guy miss and just take it to the house.”

Which is what he did against the Spartans. On 3rd and 15 in the third quarter, Bacher found Yarbrough coming over the middle on a short pass. The defender missed the tackle, and just like that, Yarbrough was gone.

He used his 4.4-second 40-yard-dash speed and sprinted 78 yards for the touchdown – the Cats’ longest play from scrimmage this year.

“I just got the ball and saw the end zone and took off,” Yarbrough said. “I didn’t see anybody. I just saw the end zone.”

Injuries didn’t let Yarbrough see the end zone – or the field – much before this season. He redshirted the 2004 season and totaled just five catches for 31 yards the last two years.

After three frustrating seasons, Yarbrough’s finally enjoying his chance to flash his speed during game time.

“It’s just been very special,” Yarbrough said. “All the hard work, all the running, it’s all starting to pay off. With the winning that we’re doing and getting close to bowl game, it’s all paying off right now.”

THE COMEBACK STORY

This season has been a long time coming for fifth-year senior Kim Thompson.

In the three years he’s played, Thompson has battled injuries (a broken foot and a broken finger), personal issues and a two-game suspension in 2005 for violating NU’s athletic departmental policy.

But he’s become an important target for Bacher this year. Thompson’s 508 receiving yards this season put him over 1,000 for his NU career.

“He’s battled through a lot of adversity, especially the last two years, and just to keep improving and getting better
,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Kim’s playing the best football of his career right now. He’s playing with a great sense of urgency, making big plays for us, and then being very unselfish.”

His biggest plays came in a 133-yard output against Eastern Michigan.

With the Cats clinging to a 19-14 lead, Thompson took charge on a third down deep in NU territory. Playing in his hometown of Detroit, he caught a post pattern over the middle and broke a tackle. He turned on his former track-star speed and raced 71 yards for a touchdown to seal the win.

“He’s been a great senior, and he’s really come a long way for us the last couple games showing leadership and making big plays when the team’s been down,” Peterman said. “He’s been making a couple big catches for us lately, and that’s the kind of guy he is. He just makes the big play when you need it – like a senior should.”

THE ALL-PURPOSE PLAYER

Junior Eric Peterman ranks in the top 10 in the conference in receptions and receiving yards. He’s also fourth on the team in rushing, second in punt returns and has chipped in on seven tackles.

Not bad for a former high school quarterback.

“He’s all-purpose,” Yarbrough said. “He’s a fast guy plus he’s big. You can put him anywhere. Put him at quarterback, running back. He can do it all.”

While Peterman’s sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash speed has made him a threat as a receiver, his knowledge of the game is what got him out from behind center.

NU recruited him as a quarterback, and he expected to redshirt his freshman year before battling for the starting spot as a sophomore. Instead, injuries depleted the receiving corps and forced him to switch positions.

“I had been a quarterback my whole life, since sixth or seventh grade,” Peterman said. “I thought I had the tools to be able to play a different position, but I really didn’t expect it right away.”

Peterman said the knowledge of the game he learned as a quarterback helped him make a quick transition to wideout. He played in every game his first two years, even catching two passes in his first collegiate game.

His versatility has continued to grow. This season, he’s taken handoffs, caught deep balls, thrown two passes and even took a lateral on a hook-and-ladder play for a touchdown.

“I think just being able to play a bunch of different positions like that is something I take pride in,” Peterman said. “I want to be on the field every play, and I’m going to try to find ways to do that.”

Fitzgerald said Peterman’s progression on special teams as well as offense has made him a valuable part of the team.

“Eric is just a gamer,” Fitzgerald said. “When you look up the definition of a football player, Eric Peterman’s picture is right next to it.”

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS

With a passing offense ranked in the top 10 in the country, something is clearly clicking for the Cats.

The core group of six wide receivers stays rested with constant rotations and substitutions – enough to keep the defense honest. Their various skill sets spread the field and make the corps difficult to defend against.

“We’ve got a lot of people that can make plays all over the field,” Yarbrough said. “It’s kind of hard to try to stop one guy because we’ve got three or four other guys who can make plays.”

But the complementary characters have fused to form one unit. Their strengths have played off of each other to help Bacher rip through the record book.

Fitzgerald added that the receivers’ play – from the game-winning grab by Lane to the precision of Ward, the speed of Yarbrough to the leadership of Jones, the big plays by Thompson to the versatility of Peterman – has fueled NU’s shot at its fourth bowl appearance since 2000.

“Our strength,” Fitzgerald said, “is the whole unit.”

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