Football: Porter, Hull power Northwestern run game back to action in win over Illinois


Cam Porter breaks away for a run. The true freshman finished with a career-best 142 yards and two touchdowns.

Ella Brockway, Gameday Editor


If last year’s win against Illinois is remembered as the “Andrew Marty game,” then this year’s might go down in Northwestern football history as the “Cam Porter game.”

The last month of questions about the Wildcats’ run game — which, until Saturday, had averaged 56 yards and less than two per carry over its last three games, and was oft-remarked as a clear point of struggle — were answered in striking fashion against the Fighting Illini this afternoon.

Porter, a true freshman, ran for a career-best 142 yards on 24 attempts and two touchdowns, powering NU to a 28-10 win. Redshirt freshman Evan Hull tallied an additional 149 yards and one score.

The Cats’ 411 rushing yards were their most since another win over Illinois on Nov. 22, 2003, and their 7.1 yards per carry their best since an Oct. 27, 2012 win over Iowa. With three runs into the end zone and 16 first downs off rushing attempts, NU’s ground game pieced together a performance it’s been searching for since its three-score showing against the Hawkeyes in October.

“We’ve wanted more production out of that room. We just haven’t been able to get that consistency in the backfield,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But we were able to put it all together today.”

Especially after two full weeks of preparation, Saturday’s matchup at Ryan Field seemed a perfect opportunity for the Cats to finally get a chance to work out the kinks of their struggling rushing attack. Illinois had the second-worst run defense in the Big Ten before Saturday, and Fitzgerald felt confident that his team’s offensive line could match up well against the Fighting Illini’s front seven.

NU’s game plan was run-heavy from the opening kickoff — just as in 2019, the cold, rainy weather “dictated” their offensive strategy — but didn’t get off to a great start. Sophomore back Drake Anderson fumbled on his own 2-yard line on the team’s first play of the game.

Two drives later, near the end of the first quarter, Porter emerged — first in the shotgun, debuting in the Wildcat formation for consecutive plays — and almost immediately changed the game. On a third-and-short down by three, the rookie from Cincinnati broke off for a career-long 31-yard run, pushing the Cats past midfield and setting up the touchdown that would come minutes later to open the second quarter.

“We knew what type of game this was going to be. We knew the weather, we knew the elements, and we knew that we were going to have to run the ball,” Porter said. “Our mindset was just running the ball downhill, that was our main focus all week. I think we executed well.”

On NU’s next offensive drive, it was Hull’s turn to break free for a long run, with a 23-yard run to give the Cats another first down. The Cats have struggled to make explosive plays since its season opener, especially in the run game — the Maryland game was the only other time this season that the Cats finished with more than five runs for more than 20 yards. Those two from Porter and Hull gave the team boosts of momentum moving down the field.

Porter’s first touchdown of the afternoon came on the ensuing seven-minute, 17-play drive: He carried the ball nine times, four out of the Wildcat, to help move the offense 64 yards down the field and eventually give the Cats their first end zone score of the afternoon on a 2-yard rush.

“Coming into the game I knew I was going to get some carries,” said Porter, who also ran it out of the Wildcat for his first career touchdown against Michigan State on Nov. 28. “I didn’t know I was going to get as many as I did, but that’s how the game went. Just went with the flow.”

The run game’s success continued in the second half, with Porter adding a pair of two big runs for 10-plus yards and then an 18-yard dash for a touchdown on NU’s first drive. Hull came back into the game on an important fourth-and-4 from the Illinois 32-yard line with 10:06 left in the third, and broke off for a 32-yard running score that sealed the Cats’ victory.

Hull would get away for a career-long 50-yard run later in the fourth quarter, marking NU’s longest run since Coco Azema ran for 58 yards against the Fighting Illini last November.

Even as the unit struggled, Fitzgerald has stressed the importance of the running back room’s depth, and it showed this afternoon: Anderson didn’t see a touch after the fumble, but junior back Isaiah Bowser came in sporadically to tally 5 carries for 17 yards, and senior wide receiver Kyric McGowan added an additional 34 yards on two big breakaways.

“We talked a lot last week about just getting the run game going, and like we’ve talked about all year, just having competition in the backfield,” Fitzgerald said. “Those guys haven’t been very pleased at all with our production (but) they’ve been working really, really hard and I’m thankful for them.”

NU tends to run the ball well against the Fighting Illini defense — this was the fifth time in the last ten meetings between the two sides that the Cats have tallied at least 275 yards on the ground, and the third in which they’ve cracked 300.

How much foresight Saturday’s showing can offer into what NU’s run game will look like next week against No. 4 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game remains to be seen. The Buckeyes own the sixth-best rushing defense in the country, allowing only 3.4 yards per carry through five games, and Fitzgerald was hesitant to make any predictions about what the group’s pecking order would look like in Indianapolis.

But the Cats’ history-making performance against the Fighting Illini did, at the very least, offer a glimpse of what’s seemingly a bright future for a young running backs room.

“I know it’s not common for a true freshman to get a lot of carries, but I’m just thankful for it all,” Porter said. “I’m ready to keep rolling.”

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