Football: Stable of running backs set to fill Simmons’ shoes

Danny Daly

A key factor in Northwestern’s last two losses was its inability to establish a reliable ground attack. And it doesn’t look like the Wildcats will get any additional help running the ball Saturday against Purdue.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald announced Monday running back Stephen Simmons, the Cats’ leading rusher, is doubtful for Saturday’s game due to a leg injury, which prevented the junior starter from playing against Syracuse and Minnesota. That leaves a trio of sophomores – Jacob Schmidt, Jeravin Matthews and Scott Concannon – and true freshman Arby Fields with the job of filling Simmons’ void.

“We need to run the ball better,” Fitzgerald said in his weekly press conference. “There’s no question about that. … We want to be around 55, 60 percent of the time being run-efficient. We were close, but not being there leads us to not feel like we’re in the right position to run the ball.”

The statistics from the past two weeks aren’t pretty: 57 rushes for 116 yards, or roughly two yards per carry. But senior quarterback Mike Kafka has been sacked nine times in the last two games for a loss of 75 yards, skewing the numbers. The Cats averaged just less than four yards-per-attempt excluding those plays – not as ugly as before, but still nothing to brag about.

Without Simmons, Fields might be NU’s most productive ball carrier. He leads the Cats with three rushing touchdowns and four runs of more than 10 yards, including 14- and 17-yard scampers against the Golden Gophers.

Simmons and Fields don’t share the same running style, but the offensive line hasn’t had a problem adjusting between the two.

“Every running back has a different characteristic about them that they use to their strength,” sophomore left tackle Al Netter said. “Arby is more of the downfield, powerful runner, and Steph’s a little bit quicker and shiftier.”

Perhaps the biggest problem area for the Cats’ ground game is on first down. They averaged 3.8 yards per attempt on first down in their two losses, and that number drops to 3.0 if not for a 25-yard gain by Fields against Syracuse.

As a result of the struggles, offensive coordinator Mick McCall hasn’t been able to trust his running backs on third-and-short. NU was faced with six third downs of four yards or fewer, but only ran the ball once – and didn’t do so successfully. Only one third-down conversion in the past two games came on the ground.

Prolific pocket passer

Last year, Kafka made national headlines because of his accomplishments on his feet. The then-junior backup stepped in for starter C. J. Bachér against Minnesota and ran for 217 yards in an upset victory, breaking the Big Ten record for a quarterback.

But through four games this season, it has been a different story. Kafka has netted only seven yards on the ground, and 91 without including sacks. Kafka hasn’t come anywhere near that rushing total in any game so far, never mind duplicating his record-setting performance.

Instead, Kafka has developed into a potent passer. He leads the Big Ten in yards and completion percentage, throwing for more than 300 yards in back-to-back weeks and establishing another school best with 16 straight completions against Syracuse.

Being the full-time starter has helped Kafka develop poise in the pocket.

“A lot of it has to do with Mike being more comfortable staying in the pocket and more confident in his abilities throwing the ball down the field,” Netter said. “He trusts our receivers, he trusts the offensive line.”

11-man operation

After the 35-24 loss to Minnesota, Fitzgerald said his offense had a problem with “one-man breakdowns.” That was especially apparent at the end of the game, when Kafka was pressured heavily and fumbled on consecutive offensive snaps.

“As an offensive line, it doesn’t matter if four guys do the right thing,” Netter said. “It could be that one guy that breaks down (that causes the play to not work).”

The Cats did make a few big blocks during the game. None was bigger than the one senior superback Mark Woodsum threw to clear a path for Fields’ two-yard touchdown run.

“It was an outside option to the left, and I was initially responsible for the will linebacker,” Woodsum said. “But the corner played wide, and I just squared him up. His job is to maintain outside leverage, so I just tried to keep my hands inside, keep my base, drive him (to the sideline) and let (Fields) make a cut off of me.”

Quick hits:

Saturday’s game at Purdue will be televised at 11 a.m. on the Big Ten Network, which will also show NU’s contest against Miami (Ohio) on Oct. 10. … The Cats scored a season-high 48 points in last year’s win against the Boilermakers. … This is the sixth-consecutive meeting between the two schools in which neither one has been nationally ranked. The last time one of the teams was in the top 25 for this matchup was in 2003, when No. 13 Purdue cruised to a 34-14 win.

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