Football: Northwestern looks for balance with running game

Jonah L. Rosenblum

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In its first game of the season, Northwestern benefited from a controversial personal foul call that enabled it to run the clock out in a 23-21 win against Vanderbilt. In NU’s sixth game of the season, the Wildcats found themselves on the opposite side of a late penalty, as a holding call contributed to NU’s first loss.

Trailing by three points against Purdue, junior running back Jacob Schmidt uncorked a 22-yard run into the red zone – except the referees called a holding penalty on junior center Ben Burkett.

“I’m not going to sit there and make the call for the ref on whether it was wrong or right,” Burkett said. “(The referee) got me for one earlier and warned me so it’s my fault and I just got to move on.”

As a result of the penalty, the Cats had to deal with a third-and-15 from the Purdue 36 as opposed to a first-and-goal from the Boilermakers’ 4-yard-line.

“I was disappointed,” Schmidt said. “You break off a big run and you get your team down into the tight zone with a chance to score and win the game and you turn around and see the yellow flag on the field.”

After a failed third-down conversion and missed field goal, NU never threatened again.

The penalty was a fitting end to a game in which the Cats’ rushing attack put up a flat performance. NU recorded just 84 rushing yards on 42 carries against Purdue, by far its lowest output of the season. The Boilermakers accumulated 232 yards on the same number of carries.

“I got to give them credit because year in and year out Purdue always has a solid defensive line,” Burkett said. “They had two weeks to prepare and they did a good job.”

Some have questioned why the Cats bother running the ball so much, especially when the team averaged just two yards per rush against the Boilermakers compared to 7.4 yards per pass attempt.

Junior quarterback Dan Persa said he’s willing to throw the ball all game if that’s what it takes.

“We’re perfectly comfortable throwing it every down if we have to,” Persa said, adding that short passes are essentially an extension of the run game.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald, however, disagreed with “some of my 30,000 offensive coordinators” and maintained that rushing the ball is critical to establishing a balanced attack.

“We want to have balance,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s Big Ten football, you have to have some semblance of balance. We’ve been working on it for the whole season.”

Fitzgerald said that a good rushing attack is especially crucial when it comes to finishing drives, an area in which NU has struggled this season.

“You want to be able to control the football, to move the football and to score,” Fitzgerald said. “As you move down the field, the field shrinks, so you have to be able to run the football most importantly to have success in the red zone.”

Fitzgerald hopes that an extra week of preparation will help his team establish a more efficient run game in the weeks ahead.

“We’re going to do everything we can to win,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve taken a hard look at everything we’ve done in the first half, some things have been positive and some have some room for improvement – the run game is one of them. Hopefully we’ll build off this week off and continue to get better.”

And in addition to using their bye week, the Cats can also build off the experience of playing a strong front seven like Purdue’s.

“It’s definitely good for us,” Schmidt said. “Each week the competition in the Big Ten is going to be outstanding and each week it’s going to get harder and harder to run the ball, pass the ball, pick up blitzes and so to see Purdue pretty early, that should help us in the weeks to come.”