Notebook: Relying on the running quarterback

Jake Simpson

Mike Kafka was back to his running ways again. In the first half, Ohio State could do little to stop him.

The junior quarterback started his second straight game in place of injured starter C.J. Bachér, who was out with a strained right hamstring. While Kafka was unable to run with the same effectiveness he had against Minnesota, he led the Wildcats (7-3, 3-3 Big Ten) in rushing with 83 yards and scored Northwestern’s only touchdown of the day.

“He played good,” running back Stephen Simmons said of Kafka.

For the second straight week, the junior signal-caller led the offense down the field for a touchdown on NU’s opening drive. While the Buckeyes (8-2, 5-1) repeatedly stacked the line of scrimmage, Kafka ran around and through Ohio State’s talented linebacker corps.

Kafka carried the ball 10 times on the Cats’ drive, including the final seven plays in a row. Every run went for positive yardage, including an 11-yard run on third-and-one in which Kafka dragged star Ohio State linebacker Marcus Freeman for five yards before going down.

Buckeyes’ middle linebacker James Laurinaitis said NU surprised Ohio State with its run formations.

“The previous week (against Minnesota), they had run with one tight end and one back, and this week they stretched it out a little bit with two tight ends and tried to run it behind them,” he said. “So it went a little different.”

Kafka finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown run, his first since 2006.

TURNOVERS STRIKE AGAIN

For the third straight game, the Cats lost the turnover battle.

NU held on to the ball for the first three quarters, with the exception of a fumble by wide receiver Eric Peterman that led to an Ohio State field goal. But in the fourth quarter, Kafka turned over the ball on consecutive drives, throwing an interception and losing a fumble in a four-minute stretch.

“We had some self-inflicted wounds (on offense)” NU coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

The Cats once again were hampered by an inability to force a single turnover on the defensive end. Since recording five takeaways in a 48-26 victory over Purdue, the NU defense had forced just one turnover – safety Brendan Smith’s game-winning interception against Minnesota – in the past three games. In the same span, the offense had coughed it up 10 times. Add it up, and you have a minus-9 turnover margin in the past three weeks.

Smith expressed his frustration after the game.

“I should have had three interceptions, and I didn’t do it,” he said.

GAMESMANSHIP, OR GOOD FOOTBALL?

Fitzgerald did not comment on a series of curious play calls made by Ohio State coach Jim Tressel in the fourth quarter.

First, Tressel called for a fake punt with eight minutes left and the Buckeyes leading 31-10. The play worked and helped set up a touchdown.

Leading 38-10, the Buckeyes did not kneel the ball in the game’s final minute. Instead, running back Dan Herron rushed for a 16-yard touchdown with seven seconds left to close out the scoring.

While many would call that running up the score, Fitzgerald remained silent on the subject.

“I’ve got nothing to say about that,” he said.

Tressel defended both decisions, including the late touchdown run.

“The problem was it was fourth down and the play clock was less than the game clock, so you either snap the ball and you’re OK or you don’t snap the ball and you get a penalty,” he said. “So I didn’t ever dream he’d run however long that was – 16 yards for a touchdown.”

The game notes seem to refute Tressel’s explanation. Herron’s touchdown run came on first down – not fourth down.

The NU players focused more on their inability to stop Ohio State than on Tressel’s alleged gamesmanship.

“Football is football,” Simmons said. “No matter who you’re playing or what the score is, you’re still playing.”

QUICK HITS

Fitzgerald said running back Omar Conteh, who was injured in a non-contact drill Wednesday, had surgery Friday for the still-undisclosed injury. Conteh’s status should be updated today or Tuesday. … After one facemask penalty on defensive end Corey Wootton, Fitzgerald seemed irate on the field. After the game, he explained his dislike with the facemask rule itself. “A defensive player puts his hand on the mask, it’s a penalty,” he said. “An offensive player puts his hand on the mask, and it’s a good play.” … With two games left in the regular season, NU is now in a four-way tie for fourth place in the Big Ten.

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