Football: Wildcats’ offensive line turning a corner after early-season struggles

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Football: Wildcats’ offensive line turning a corner after early-season struggles

Several offensive linemen prepare to engage blocks. The Wildcats have picked up their play in recent weeks.

Several offensive linemen prepare to engage blocks. The Wildcats have picked up their play in recent weeks.

Daily file photo by David Lee

Several offensive linemen prepare to engage blocks. The Wildcats have picked up their play in recent weeks.

Daily file photo by David Lee

Daily file photo by David Lee

Several offensive linemen prepare to engage blocks. The Wildcats have picked up their play in recent weeks.

Cole Paxton, Gameday Editor

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Two days after Northwestern escaped lowly Rutgers with an 18-15 win, Pat Fitzgerald called out his offense in a team meeting.

The Wildcats’ offensive line took the message to heart.

In its next outing a week ago, the NU front pummeled Wisconsin en route to a 31-17 upset win, powered by a line that dominated the trenches against a team known for powerful line play. The victory both kept the Cats atop the Big Ten West and signaled a turning point for a unit that has struggled to find a consistent combination of top performers.

“We took that really personal. That’s when things really started to change,” sophomore tackle Rashawn Slater said of Fitzgerald’s remarks. “We all got together and said, ‘We’re going to pound whoever we go up against. We’re going to run the ball.’”

The results bore that out: NU rushed for a season-high 182 yards and tallied 49 attempts — itself a season best. Freshman running back Isaiah Bowser rolled for 117 yards alone. Pass blocking was similarly effective; senior quarterback Clayton Thorson was sacked just once.

Those late-October numbers mark a sharp contrast from earlier performances. The Cats rushed for a woeful 68 yards over a three-game span of Big Ten games. NU went more than seven weeks — between the season opener against Purdue and the contest at Rutgers — without rushing for 100 yards as a team.

Much as it did a season ago, the NU line has seemed to recover from September stumbles to find its best form when summer fully gives way to fall.

“We’ve had more consistency the last couple of weeks, and that’s the biggest thing for us,” senior guard J.B. Butler said. “When we’re not playing well is when we’re not being consistent, we’re not sustaining drives, we’re not putting the ball in the end zone when we should. The past couple weeks we’ve done that.”

In addition to more consistent play, the Cats are relying on a more consistent cast of characters. Only two players — junior Jared Thomas at center and Slater at right tackle — have started every game. Left tackle Blake Hance and right guard Tommy Doles, both seniors and the most experienced players on the line, missed games with injuries.

At left guard, Butler has fought off challenges from multiple players. Sophomore guard Nik Urban has served as a jack-of-all-trades, starting games at both guard spots and backing up Thomas at center.

NU has changed its personnel in the trenches so often that it used five different starting combinations in one five-week span; only in the last two weeks has Fitzgerald settled on his regular first five.

“A lot of improvement needs to happen in that room, but to get those guys back has really helped,” Fitzgerald said of his returning seniors. “We’ve got have some competition up there now, some of those younger guys are getting better. They played probably their best game of the year against a really good front (in Wisconsin).”

With four returning starters, the line was slated to be a bright spot for the Cats this season. But little went right in the early going: starting running back Jeremy Larkin was forced to retire suddenly; NU allowed 12 sacks in a three-game September skid; injuries began to pile up.

But as the season has progressed, those issues have gradually faded, and Bowser is now nearing the numbers Larkin tallied before he left the field.

“At the end of the day, it’s still football. So it’s just mental,” Thomas said. “We have to look within and really focus on what we do each and every day. … Once we did that, we opened up some holes for Bowser, and he has made us look good.”

Email: colepaxton2019@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @ckpaxton

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