Football: RPOs continue to dominate discussion ahead of Akron game


Daily file photo by David Lee

Northwestern safety Jared McGee (#41) and linebacker Nate Hall (#32) chase a Purdue player. McGee, Hall and the rest of the Wildcats’ defense will face another RPO-based offense Saturday against Akron.

Ben Pope, Gameday Editor


Coach Pat Fitzgerald went viral on Tuesday by calling run-pass options schemes “communist” in his weekly news conference, mostly in reference to the fact that blocking linemen frequently stray more than the allowed three yards downfield without a flag being thrown during such RPO plays.

“RPO is the purest form of communism,” he said. “It’s the most in-vogue change in football that, if you’re a purist of football, it’s not the game.”

And as for Akron, Northwestern’s opponent on Saturday — are they an RPO team too? “Oh yeah,” Fitzgerald said. “Why wouldn’t you be? Linemen, go downfield, we’re going to throw it, and they won’t call it.”

After facing two multi-faceted RPO attacks in Purdue and Duke to start out the season, the Wildcats (1-1) draw their lone non-power-conference foe of the season at Ryan Field this weekend, but they’ll still have to run similar defensive schemes as before.

The Zips (1-0) are quarterbacked by Kato Nelson, who took over the starting job midway through last season and showed some promising flashes. Nelson has struggled with his completion rate but is averaging a solid 7.4 yards per attempt and has thrown just three interceptions in his career to date. He also has some running capability.

Nelson will orchestrate an RPO attack that is complemented by running back Van Edwards, who went for 109 yards in two scores in Akron’s 41-7 season-opening win over Morgan State. The rest of the supporting cast is questionable, however — the Zips return just one of their top seven receivers from last year’s 7-7 team. (The defense is stronger, with 10 returning starters.)

“Nelson, since he’s solidified himself as their quarterback, really stirs the drink for what they’re trying to get done offensively — he’s a dual-threat guy that makes a lot of really good decisions,” Fitzgerald said. “(I’m) really impressed with him on tape throughout the whole course of last year.”

Unfortunately for NU, there isn’t much tape so far this year. Akron’s scheduled opener against NU’s Big Ten foe Nebraska was cancelled due to weather and FCS-level Morgan State didn’t put up much of a fight. The Cats can reference the Zips’ losses in both the MAC Championship Game and their bowl game last December, though, as well as an earlier-season 34-23 win over common opponent Bowling Green.

NU senior safety Jared McGee said the team will continue to follow a similar defensive strategy, at least in the secondary, to defend RPO plays that they have the past two weeks.

“For the past two games, that was the scheme with me and JR (Pace) — having JR play out in space a little more and having me fill the run a little more, filling in towards the tight end,” he said. “We’ve been continuing to do that and it’s been working for us, so until a team shows us something different, it’s going to stay playing field and boundary for now.”

But even though the Cats have a plan in place to defend RPOs, they still frustrate the team and Fitzgerald. McGee and sophomore linebacker Paddy Fisher both said they’ve had to learn to slow down their reads to not overcommit to defending the run or the pass exclusively, and Fisher has often been the defender “read” by the opposing quarterback when making his decision.

All of that is simply something they “have to learn how to play against,” in Fisher’s words. When linemen and other blockers get into the equation, however, that’s when Fitzgerald’s complaints come into play.

“It’s illegal, to be quite honest with you,” Fitzgerald said. “I’d like to see them go back to making offenses play honest, where if you come downfield at all it’s a penalty.”

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