Sidebar: McCall trusts Markshausen with magic trick play

Danny Daly and Danny Daly

If there was one play Saturday that best summed up the progress Northwestern has made this season, it was wide receiver Zeke Markshausen’s touchdown pass late in the second quarter.

On first-and-10 from Wisconsin’s 38-yard line, offensive coordinator Mick McCall went into his bag of tricks. Senior quarterback Mike Kafka threw a screen to Markshausen, who had dropped back on the far sideline. Instead of running upfield, like he has on many screens this year, Markshausen looked for streaking junior wideout Sidney Stewart.

“I was just trying to make it look better than (junior kicker Stefan) Demos’ looked,” Markshausen said, poking fun at Demos’ shovel pass three weeks ago against Penn State. “I saw that Sid Stew was open and launched it to him. I hoped it got there and hoped it was somewhat of a spiral.”

The pass was successful on both counts. Stewart speared it and ran six yards into the end zone, giving the Wildcats a 10-point lead. NU extended its lead to 13 by halftime, and it held on for a thrilling 33-31 victory over No. 16 Wisconsin.

Markshausen’s pass was one of the turning points in the win. It was a gamble – the Cats were driving with a slim lead, and a turnover on a trick play gone wrong would have allowed the Badgers to seize momentum. But luckily for NU, the throw was on target. The Cats fooled the Badgers, just like they have surprised the nation with two wins over ranked opponents this month.

“I give Mike (Kafka) credit because I didn’t look at any safeties,” Markshausen said. “I was hoping no one would come in front of (Stewart) and grab it. I kind of did the Brett Favre backpedal. That was my first-ever touchdown pass, so I can’t say I really knew what I was doing other than just practicing it.”

Since NU has multiple former quarterbacks playing other positions, wideout passes are in the gameplan most weeks. Markshausen is not one of those ex-signal callers, making the playcall even riskier, but he estimated that he and the rest of his position group still work on those plays “once (or) twice a week.”

There’s a difference between executing that play during the week and doing so on Saturdays. NU called a pass for Markshausen in the loss to Penn State, but the Nittany Lions weren’t caught off-guard and the play broke down, forcing him to run it.

“We’ve always been a great practice team – that’s been evident from Camp Kenosha,” senior wide receiver Andrew Brewer said. “But we just had trouble translating it earlier in the season to game day. We’ve finally gotten over the hump, and we’re executing more consistently in all three phases. That’s making a big impact.”

The play also highlighted the evolution of NU’s deep passing game. At times this season, the Cats have struggled to throw the ball vertically, because a sputtering running game let defenses focus more on the pass and a struggling offensive line forced Kafka to check down or scramble.

That wasn’t the case against the Badgers. Kafka had time to throw and was sacked only once for the second consecutive game.

“All the praise and all that should go to the offensive line,” said Kafka, who completed 26-of-40 passes for 326 yards. “They’ve battled through injuries and a lot of ups and downs. … Our offensive line played great, and (our receivers) got open.”

That McCall and coach Pat Fitzgerald trusted Markshausen to pull off the game-changing play speaks volumes about how far he has come, too. A year ago, Markshausen had one career catch to his credit. After reeling in three passes against Wisconsin, he vaulted into a tie for fourth on the single-season NU receptions list with 79, which is also good for second in the Big Ten.

For a guy who didn’t figure to factor into the Cats’ long-term plans when he first arrived in Evanston, it has been a remarkable season.

“Coming here was an opportunity for me to see how good I could be,” Markshausen said. “I don’t think I was on a (depth chart) string. It was just one of those things that was like, ‘Zeke just watch for awhile. Don’t do anything dumb. Don’t get anybody hurt.’

“Then I convinced them that I could maybe run a route or two, and then I got going with Mike, we started torching the first-team defense out there, and the rest is history.”

In six weeks, Markshausen will have a chance to etch himself even further into NU lore by helping the Cats win their first bowl in 60 years.

[email protected]