Football: D-line battles back from injuries

Danny Daly and Danny Daly

Everyone expected it to take time for Northwestern senior defensive end Corey Wootton to recover from his offseason knee surgery. With more than half of the season gone, it’s getting harder to wait.

Wootton hasn’t shown a glimpse of the player who earned a spot on the All-Big Ten First Team last year. In fact, the senior is still looking to record his first sack.

Two weeks ago, Wootton suffered a setback when he came out of the Purdue game with a sprained ankle. Since then, he has only played on a few third downs.

“I was happy to see him be able to get out there on the field a little bit on Saturday, ” coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday at his weekly press conference. “There’s nobody trying harder than him to make a difference. He’s getting closer.”

Wootton did not do anything of note during the last two games, though the coaching staff was careful with him and limited his practice time. His name was not on the injury report for either game.

While the defensive line is starting to play better, it clearly misses the pass-rushing presence a healthy Wootton can provide. The Wildcats notched four sacks in their first three conference games, and none in Saturday’s 24-14 loss to the Spartans.

“It hurts not to have Corey out there,” senior defensive tackle Adam Hahn said. “Of course it would help to have guys like Corey Wootton on the field.”

HAHN HEALTHY

Though Wootton is still fighting injuries, Hahn has finally healed. Hahn was injured before the team even started Camp Kenosha and did not make his season debut until the third week, against Syracuse.

“I broke my foot, my fifth metatarsal, the second day of spring ball,” he said. “I immediately had surgery – it was just kind of a lingering injury, something that wasn’t healing as fast as we would’ve liked. … It takes time to get back into it when you’ve been out for so long.”Hahn could not do much conditioning work because of his foot injury. Once he returned, he said it did not take long to pick up where he left off.

“All summer was non-contact with the foot, so I was strictly in the pool,” Hahn said. “Just going through practices got me back into game shape – we practice faster than the games go.”

Against Michigan State, Hahn led the defense with 1.5 tackles for a loss, and his 11 tackles this year are the fourth-most for a defensive lineman.

KAFKA’S CLUNKER

At the end of last year’s game against Indiana, NU sent quarterback Mike Kafka out onto the field to try to spark a come-from-behind victory. The Cats were trailing by two, and then-starter C.J. Bachér had injured his hamstring on the previous drive.

Kafka completed his first pass, which went for nine yards and set up second-and-one about 40 yards away from field goal range. Then everything fell apart.

“I don’t really want to remember it that much,” Kafka said. “I didn’t have a great play, that last one.”

Hoosiers defensive end Jammie Kirlew burst through the line to strip Kafka, the ball bounced more than 20 yards backward and the Cats recovered on their 5-yard line. Kafka fumbled again on the next play, but this time Indiana came up with the loose ball. With 1:34 remaining, the Hoosiers ran out the clock for their only Big Ten victory of the season.Kafka hopes to make up for his mistakes this weekend.

“It’s definitely something I’ve learned from,” he said. “I’ll be able to grow from that situation.”

FITZ FIERY AFTER FUMBLE

After sophomore returner Jeravin Matthews muffed the kickoff to start the fourth quarter, there was a sense of dejection. The Spartans recovered the ball on the NU 22-yard line, giving Michigan State great field position and a chance to add to its 10-point lead.

But the last thing Fitzgerald wanted his team to do was convey any loss of hope. He sprinted onto the field and ran off behind Matthews.

“My intention was to get his attention, to understand that attitude’s everything,” Fitzgerald said. “When he came over to the sideline, I told him, ‘Flush it, you’re going to come back the next time and make a big play.’ … I needed to snap him out of it a little bit.”

Michigan State scored one play later, but Matthews returned the ensuing kickoff 28 yards.

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