Football: Cats’ victory starts in the trenches

Colin Becht

Leading up to the battle of NUs this weekend, one squad seemed clearly superior in the trenches.

When Saturday’s game concluded, it was the other NU, Northwestern, whose linemen proved dominant, clearing the path to a 28-25 upset over then-No. 9 Nebraska.

“We feel strongly that we’ve got to control the line of scrimmage in every game to be able to have success,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re becoming more consistent, not only in the offensive line but also up front in the defensive line.”

The Wildcats won the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, rushing for 207 yards to the Cornhuskers’ 122, the latter a season low for Nebraska. NU also registered 11 tackles for a loss while Nebraska had just two.

When the Cats needed their offensive line most, the unit responded as NU ran the ball 13 times in row in the fourth quarter to roll seven minutes and 14 seconds off the clock before quarterback Kain Colter plunged into the end zone for what proved to be the game-winning score.

“It’s just good to know that we did our job,” redshirt freshman center Brandon Vitabile said. “It’s just satisfying knowing you were able to finish the game out.”

Fitzgerald said the offensive line graded out to an 89 percent, which Vitabile said meant the unit committed just five or six errors in the game.

“This is the first time that (the coaches) mentioned that the whole unit performed that well,” Vitabile said. “When the whole line is performing at that level, it’s great. It showed on the last drive. We were all executing our blocks and doing our own job.”

Even sophomore quarterback/wide receiver Kain Colter got in on the blocking bonanza, cracking a Nebraska defensive tackle on a run play.

“He lit up a tackle, threw him on his butt,” senior running back Jacob Schmidt said. “It was sweet.”

NU’s defensive line surprised even more than the offensive unit, holding star running back Rex Burkhead to 69 yards on the ground, 41 less than his average entering the contest.

The defensive line came up with huge stops throughout Saturday’s game, such as when junior defensive end Quentin Williams blew up Burkhead in the backfield on fourth-and-two midway through the third quarter. The play was one of two tackles for loss by Williams, who joined linebackers Damien Proby and David Nwabuisi with multiple tackles for loss.

“They got off blocks better,” Fitzgerald said. “We took proper angles to the ball. We had great swarm and we tackled better. We missed about the same amount of tackles that we had on average, but we had better swarm and better pursuit.”

Though Cornhuskers quarterback Taylor Martinez said the Cats presented a different front defensively than the Nebraska offensive line expected, Fitzgerald insisted it was the same gameplan.

Regardless, the surprising success was a welcome improvement for a defense that gave up 319 rushing yards to Indiana the game before.

Fitzgerald said that the defense was finally beginning to show a “semblance of a Big Ten defense.”

“No girl wanted to talk to them on campus three weeks ago, now every girl wants to talk to them,” Fitzgerald said. “Congratulations.”

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