Football notebook: NU offense looking for lost long ball

Danny Daly

Early in the fourth quarter of Northwestern’s loss to Syracuse, senior quarterback Mike Kafka hit wide receiver Zeke Markshausen on a crossing route, gaining 30 yards. The completion put the Wildcats inside the 10-yard line, eventually leading to their final touchdown.

Not one of Kafka’s 130 passes since then has gained 30 yards or more.

NU’s success throwing the ball at the beginning of the season is part of the reason for the team’s recent struggles going deep, as opponents have reacted.

“In Syracuse, we threw the ball all over the place,” said Kafka, who passed for 390 yards and three scores against the Orange. “Teams noticed that, so they started backing off a little bit.”

That opens up passing lanes underneath, which NU has tried to exploit. All three of the Cats’ leading receivers are averaging less than 11 yards per catch.

Still, the Cats want to throw the ball downfield.

“It’s not like we haven’t had some things where we’ve tried to go down the field a little bit,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “But sometimes they weren’t there, or sometimes we had a play call like that and we checked out of it because of the defense that we got.”McCall has faith in his options if he wants to go long, specifically senior Andrew Brewer, junior Sidney Stewart and sophomore Jeremy Ebert. The trio might be more involved this weekend at Michigan State.

“There are some chances there,” McCall said. “We’ll have some blitz opportunities against them, because they will zone-pressure us a little bit. We have to be ready to go with that.”Only nine teams have given up more touchdowns through the air than the Spartans, who have allowed 13.

DUELING DUAL-THREATS

Michigan State lost its two biggest playmakers, running back Javon Ringer and quarterback Brian Hoyer, to graduation after last season. The Spartans still have not decided on a regular replacement for either of them.

In the season’s first half, three tailbacks carried the ball at least 40 times for coach Mark Dantonio’s squad. The offense also features two quarterbacks, sophomores Kirk Cousins and Keith Nichol, who both spend time under center.

Michigan State’s 24-14 victory over Illinois last week was the first game so far that only one quarterback played – Cousins was shelved after suffering an ankle injury against Michigan the week before. But he figures to be ready for NU.

“They’ve started Cousins when he’s been healthy, and then they roll Nichol in some situations to take advantage of his athleticism and maybe what they saw from the defense in specific down-and-distances,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We definitely expect to see both. Both are very athletic, both are very good throwers, and they have good packages for both.”

Cousins and Nichol have combined for 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The former has been more accurate, completing more than 62 percent of his passes, while the latter has been sacked just once and averages 6.1 yards per carry.

The Cats’ experience trying to contain Miami (OH) quarterback Zac Dysert last week should be valuable against the Spartans’ duo. Defending a signal caller who can run requires some adjustments.

“Any time you play a mobile quarterback, you have to make sure the D-lines are in the lanes and the linebackers have their eyes in the backfield,” senior safety Brad Phillips said. “When he does take off, you can rally to him and limit the gain.”

IT’S AN ADVENTURE, CHARLIE BROWN

One of the most pleasant surprises in the first six games was the depth of NU’s receiving core. And if Saturday’s win was any indication, it might be even deeper than previously thought.

Sophomore wideout Charles Brown made his first two catches of the year, tied for third-most on the team against the RedHawks. Kafka found Brown on first down for eight yards in the first half, then went to him again on third-and-nine in Miami territory after intermission. That connection moved the chains and gave the Cats possession on the 30-yard line.

“It definitely feels good to be out there and involved,” Brown said. “Hard work is paying off.”[email protected]