Sidebar: Kafka shines with arms, legs

Matt Forman

MINNEAPOLIS – Starting behind center for the first time in more than two years, Mike Kafka faced a challenge on his first snap from scrimmage.

Knowing the scripted play offensive coordinator Mick McCall had pre-selected, the junior took a shotgun snap and rushed off the right side on a speed option. As he glided toward the sideline, Kafka met junior defensive back Marcus Sherels face-to-face.

Then, Kafka was past him.

“The key to victory for Northwestern was us and our inability to tackle the quarterback,” Minnesota coach Tim Brewster said. “That was the name of the game.”

Kafka lowered his shoulder, spun off of Sherels, broke an ankle tackle and dove for an 11-yard gain. The Houdini-like spin move set the tone for NU and carried it the rest of the way, guiding the Wildcats to their first 7-2 start since 2000.

That play was just the beginning of Kafka’s record-setting day. The dual-threat quarterback rushed 27 times for 217 yards. That mark shattered the school record for rushing yards by a quarterback, set by Zak Kustok, who gained 115 yards in 2001.

Six plays after the opening run, Kafka faced a third-and-5 at the Minnesota 36-yard line. With 54,122 rowdy Homecoming fans on their feet, the junior noticed safety Tramaine Brock creeping up to the line to cheat on an underneath pattern.

Kafka went through a series of hand signals to his receivers and adjusted the blocking up front. With pressure coming from the edges, he threw a perfectly placed ball into the outstretched hands of freshman wide receiver Jeremy Ebert for a 36-yard touchdown.

“It was a very strong statement,” junior safety Brendan Smith said. “It put energy and life into our team. When he did that, everyone knew that, ‘OK, it’s a ballgame. We’re going to win this game.'”

Kafka was filling in for senior quarterback C.J. Bachér, who injured his hamstring against Indiana last week and was questionable for Saturday’s contest against Minnesota. Bachér had started the last 25 games behind center. NU coach Pat Fitzgerald told Kafka he would get the starting nod Wednesday night.

“I felt like I wanted to give Mike a couple days to get ready and mentally prepare,” Fitzgerald said.

Kafka completed 12-of-16 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns. He was 10-for-10 in the first and fourth quarters. The second scoring strike came with 5:33 remaining in the second quarter, when Kafka found sophomore tight end Josh Rooks in the left corner of the end zone on a playaction rollout.

A 53-yard rush by Kafka, the offense’s longest play from scrimmage Saturday, set up that connection. On a zone-option rush, Kafka faked a handoff inside to senior running back Omar Conteh, finding a seam down the right sideline. He went untouched for the first 25 yards, shrugged off a Gophers defender, and continued galloping down the sideline before being pushed out inside the Minnesota 5-yard line.Kafka added runs of 38 and 30 yards to that scamper, which was two yards shy of his career-long of 55, which came against Nevada in September 2006.

To put Kafka’s ground game into perspective, it was the Cats’ best rushing output since senior running back Tyrell Sutton rushed for 244 in 2005. Kafka’s 217 yards is fourth-best in a single game in NCAA history among quarterbacks. On that list, he’s surrounded by the likes of Florida’s Tim Tebow, West Virginia’s Pat White, and former college stars Vince Young and Michael Vick.

NU compiled 363 yards of total offense. Kafka accounted for 360 of them.

Kafka’s sterling performance came in his first start since 2006, when he threw three interceptions in the Cats’ 31-21 road loss to the Wolf Pack. Since that game, Kafka has taken a back seat to Bachér, throwing only 14 passes for 38 yards and no touchdowns.

Fitzgerald said Bachér was available to play in Saturday’s win. He did not speculate on a starter for next week’s battle at Ryan Field with No. 12 Ohio State.

“I’ll leave it at this,” Fitzgerald said. “He’ll get healthy as soon as he does.”

The first major decision Fitzgerald made as head coach was naming Kafka as his starting quarterback. Now, two seasons later, Kafka and Fitzgerald, both from the South Side of Chicago, are back where they started.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Mike,” Fitzgerald said. “I really couldn’t.”

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