Notebook: Brewer morphs into big play threat

Danny Daly

The last time Northwestern played Wisconsin, Andrew Brewer was the Wildcats’ starting quarterback. Then a freshman, Brewer was more effective on the ground than through the air in a 41-9 loss, rushing for 80 yards while completing just 10-of-24 passes.

That was the last full game Brewer played under center. C.J. Bachér seized the signal calling duties, and Brewer was converted to wide receiver to take advantage of his speed. Three years later, the senior is the main deep threat the 17th-ranked Badgers will try to shut down.

“Andrew’s really developed as a wide receiver,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Obviously a lot has changed since that last game (against Wisconsin), and he’s done a tremendous job. Each year, each rep, he’s gotten a little better.”

It was a slow but steady process. Though Brewer didn’t make any contributions in the passing game two years ago, he earned a role in 2008 and made 18 catches.

Starting for the first time this season, Brewer has reeled in 43 passes for 690 yards – a conference-leading 16.0 per reception. With five touchdowns and eight catches of more than 20 yards, including a 72-yard touchdown in the season opener against Towson, Brewer adds an explosive element to NU’s offense.

“Andrew’s a big-time player,” senior quarterback Mike Kafka said. “He’s got a lot of speed and size, and that creates mismatches on the outside when those little (defensive backs) try to match him up. We look for him to make some big plays, and he has.”

And Brewer’s throwing skills haven’t been completely wasted, either. Against Syracuse, he fired a pass across the width of the field to Kafka, who ran 24 yards for the go-ahead score. Since Brewer hadn’t thrown a touchdown while he was still a quarterback, it was the first of his collegiate career.CONTAINING CLAY A CHALLENGE

After allowing 212 rushing yards last weekend against Illinois, NU faces an even stiffer test. Wisconsin features the top ground attack in the conference, led by Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year frontrunner John Clay. The sophomore has rushed for at least 120 yards in six games this season, all Wisconsin wins. His 12 touchdowns, 218 carries and 1,124 yards are all best in the league.

But what separates him from the rest of the pack is his size.

“He’s 250 pounds,” senior safety Brad Phillips said. “He’s a big running back, he’s strong and he runs like it – he keeps his feet moving through tackles. We’ve just got to gang-tackle him and get him down.”

The Cats have had some success limiting the Big Ten’s most heralded tailbacks. Purdue’s Ralph Bolden, the league’s third-leading rusher, gained just 56 yards on 18 touches in a 27-21 loss. And apart from one long touchdown run in the fourth quarter, NU held Penn State running back Evan Royster to 3.5 yards per carry.

The challenge of trying to stop talented runners helps to motivate the defense leading up to the game.

“We get a mindset during the week at practice, where it’s going to be a physical game and we’ve got to shut down the run and make them throw the ball,” Phillips said. “It starts up front with the D-line and the linebackers coming downhill.”

The task is more manageable now that Phillips and senior defensive end Corey Wootton, among others, are getting healthy.

Clay is the latest in a long line of powerful running backs to come out of Madison, Wis. The Badgers have been running the Power-I since 1994, and their schemes have remained the same over much of that period.

“You take away the power, they’re going to run the lead,” Fitzgerald said. “You take away the lead, they’re going to run the zone reverse. You load up the box, they’re going to throw their one-on-one routes on the perimeter. … The identity hasn’t changed a lot. I was watching video with the linebackers last night, and I can call every play before it happens.”

The trick is executing to stop those plays, and that’s something most teams haven’t been able to do when taking on Wisconsin.OFFENSIVE LINE FIXES LEAKS

One of the most positive signs for NU during the past two weeks has to be the improved play of its offensive line. Though the Cats still rank 91st in the country in sacks allowed, they’ve been more solid up front.

“Our offensive line is really starting to play better,” Kafka said. “They struggled a little bit earlier, but they’re really coming into their own.”

Kafka has had more time to throw since NU gave up six sacks against Penn State. He was taken down only once in last Saturday’s victory over Illinois, just the second game in the past two months in which he wasn’t sacked at least twice.

With the mobile Kafka nursing a hamstring injury, not needing to scramble as much has been beneficial.

“It’s a bonus that I don’t have to run as much as I’ve had to, and we’re still running the ball and putting up points,” he said.

NU will have to maintain its high level of play in the trenches against a Wisconsin team averaging 2.5 sacks per game.[email protected]