Football: Offensive, defensive lines critical to Northwestern’s search for first win


Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson

Xavier Washington tries to swat a pass. The junior defensive end has had five tackles through Northwestern’s first two games.

Ben Pope, Reporter


Senior guard Connor Mahoney had harsh words for the offensive line he captains after Northwestern’s loss to Illinois State last weekend.

“We got our butts kicked up front,” he said in the postgame press conference.

On Wednesday, after cooling off from the heated emotions of losing to an FCS team, after reviewing the game film, after turning his focus forward to Saturday’s matchup against Duke, Mahoney’s analysis of the line’s performance remained exactly the same.

“I think the same thing that I thought — that we got our butts kicked up front,” he said. “I don’t think it was good enough … We saw on film that we definitely got out-hit, and we weren’t physical enough.”

A bounce-back performance from Mahoney’s offensive line, in addition to continued improvement from the defensive line, could prove critical to NU’s chances to earn their first win of the season against the Blue Devils (1-1, 0-1 ACC).

Coach Pat Fitzgerald had said that he would have made changes to the starting corps which also includes tackles Blake Hance and Eric Olson, guard Tommy Doles and center Brad North, but doesn’t have the depth necessary to do so.

So while some changes have been made deeper on the depth chart — backup tackles Ben Oxley and Sam Coverdale have switched sides, while redshirt freshman Jared Thomas has replaced senior Shane Mertz as the backup right guard — the onus will fall on the same offensive line to reverse the team’s struggles.

The goal will be to open more holes for junior running back Justin Jackson, who found little room to maneuver on outside runs against the Redbirds before missing much of the second half due to the injury.

The Cats (0-2) were able to rush effectively in last year’s 19-10 win over Duke, with Jackson grinding out 120 yards on 35 carries and Warren Long adding a 55-yard touchdown scamper. The Blue Devils gave up 239 yards and three touchdowns on the ground in a 24-14 home loss to Wake Forest last week, too, so a better offensive line performance could give Jackson an opportunity to carry the Cats to victory.

“We’ve got to match their intensity and match their effort,” Mahoney said. “I thought it was a real physical game down there (last year)…so I expect the same thing this year.”

On the defensive line, meanwhile, actual changes paid off with a much better performance against Illinois State (9 points allowed, three sacks, 2.8 yards allowed per rush) than the previous week against Western Michigan (22 points allowed, one sack, 4.1 yards allowed per rush). C.J. Robbins moved from tackle to end, senior end Ifeadi Odenigbo was benched in favor of tackle Fred Wyatt and junior end Xavier Washington switched from the left to right side.

“We took the changes as a good thing, we didn’t pout about it or anything,” Washington said, adding he welcomed the switch back to his strong side. “We knew that this would help us win, and we were willing to take whatever criticism we needed in order to get better.”

Washington and the rest of the defensive front could also benefit from a potentially advantageous matchup against a Duke line that lost four of five starters from 2015.

But there’s just as high of a likelihood that Duke’s big men will prevail over NU’s exploitable lines. Washington, Mahoney and Fitzgerald all emphasized how critical a win on Saturday, and the resulting confidence, would be entering Big Ten play.

“The biggest thing for us as a coaching staff that we’ve conveyed in them this week is that we believe in them,” Fitzgerald said. “We believe in them in who they are as individuals, we believe in who they are as athletes, and we believe in them as a team, and we’ve just got to find a way to make one more play.”

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