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Fitzgerald looking for his Fave 5

Danny Daly

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Following Northwestern’s third consecutive game with an ineffective running attack, coach Pat Fitzgerald was clearly unhappy with the play of his offensive line. He has been mixing and matching linemen all week in practice, seeing which group would perform well enough to take the field against Miami (OH) on Saturday.

“(The competition is) ongoing, daily,” Fitzgerald said. “It will be ongoing tomorrow, it will be ongoing Saturday, it will be ongoing for the rest of the year.”

The offensive line was considered one of the Wildcats’ strengths entering the season, but so far it is not performing like one. Quarterback Mike Kafka has been sacked 11 times in his last three games, and NU did not rush for 100 yards in any of those contests.

Against Purdue, the Cats started Al Netter at left tackle, Desmond Taylor at left guard, Ben Burkett at center, Doug Bartels at right guard and Kurt Mattes at right tackle.

But there is no guarantee any of those players will be in those spots come Saturday.

“I want to run the ball, and I want to finish blocks,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t care who plays. … They make me play with five guys up there, so we’ll find the right five. Until we find the right five, you’ll see different combinations out there.”

This weekend might be a good time for the line to get back on track. The RedHawks have given up 4.7 yards per carry, allowed 12 rushing touchdowns and recorded just four sacks this season.

Simmons back in action

Although the offensive line is struggling, NU’s ground attack figures to get a boost this weekend with the return of Stephen Simmons. The junior started the Cats’ first two games, scoring two touchdowns and rushing for 150 yards on 31 carries, but he has not played since.

Now that his ankle has finally healed, Simmons is practicing with the first team and relishing every minute of it.

“It’s wonderful,” he said. “After three weeks of not playing, I just couldn’t wait to get back.”Simmons was not the only running back to come back from an injury this week. Sophomore Scott Concannon missed last Saturday with a concussion, though he figures to be ready to play against Miami.

Now the Cats have more flexibility in the backfield than they have had since the beginning of the season.

“Early in the year, we were able to have a fresh tailback almost every rep,” Fitzgerald said. “It makes a difference, it really does.”

The only three running backs who dressed at Ross-Ade Stadium were true freshman Arby Fields and sophomores Jacob Schmidt and Jeravin Matthews. Fields and Schmidt combined to rush for 45 yards.

New coach, no problem

For the fifth time in its first six games, NU faces a team led by a new coach. Mike Haywood, previously the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame, was hired to replace Shane Montgomery at Miami this past offseason. In Montgomery’s four-year tenure, the RedHawks compiled a 17-31 record and played in two Mid-American Conference title games.

Haywood is still searching for his first win. The Cats were the victims of rookie Syracuse coach Doug Marrone’s first victory, though they are 3-1 against first-year bosses this season.

But even Minnesota, the one team without a first-year coach, had implemented different schemes on both sides of the ball.

“It was a breath of fresh air to play Minnesota, who we thought we knew a little bit about, and they changed coordinators,” Fitzgerald said.

The turnover at the top has presented a few complications, like making it more difficult to prepare since less video is available. So far, Fitzgerald has been pleased with how his players and staff have dealt with the situation.

“It’s a challenge, it definitely is,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re chasing some ghosts at times, and you have to do a lot of adjusting throughout the course of the game.”

danieldaly2012@u.northwestern.edu

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