Football: After season-best performance against Illinois, running backs hope to continue success against Ohio State

Evan+Hull+races+down+the+field.+The+redshirt+freshman+running+back+will+look+to+follow+up+his+career+game+against+Illinois+in+the+Big+Ten+Championship.

Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman

Evan Hull races down the field. The redshirt freshman running back will look to follow up his career game against Illinois in the Big Ten Championship.

Drew Schott, Assistant Sports Editor


Football


Two weeks ago, Northwestern’s game against Minnesota was canceled because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Golden Gophers’ program.

A bye week could not have come at a better time for the Wildcats, as players and coaches looked to rebound from an upset loss at unranked Michigan State.

For senior guard Nik Urban and the offensive lineman, it provided time to reflect on NU’s struggling running game.

The Cats’ backs started the 2020 season on a tear, rushing for a combined 440 yards and six touchdowns in wins against Maryland, Iowa and Nebraska. But in each of NU’s next three games, the unit failed to top 100 yards and averaged at least 2.0 yards a carry only once.

Things needed to change for the backs to get back in rhythm. So Urban and his teammates went to work ahead of NU’s regular-season finale against Illinois.

“We really took a step back and just focused on fundamentals and our technique and watching film with the running backs,” Urban said. “Going over the little details. Eyes in the right spot. Hands in the right spot. Communication on point.”

Their hard work came to fruition on Senior Day. In a big way.

The Cats ran for 411 yards — the team’s most since 2003 — and three touchdowns as the purple-and-white cruised to a 28-10 win over the Fighting Illini. True freshman Cam Porter rumbled for 142 yards and two scores and redshirt freshman Evan Hull racked up 149 yards on the ground and a touchdown as NU won its sixth straight in the Land of Lincoln rivalry.

No. 14 NU’s running backs will now face their toughest test of the season this weekend in the Big Ten Championship Game. No. 4 Ohio State has the sixth-best rushing defense in the country, allowing only 95 yards per game and 3.42 yards per carry.

“Their front seven is violent,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “They’re beyond physical, they’re violent and it’s a fun group to watch.”

Despite losses of 24 and 49 points in its last two matchups with the Buckeyes, NU’s rushing attack has found small increments of success.

The Cats ran for 151 yards in the 2018 Big Ten Championship Game against an Ohio State defense that allowed an average of 158.8 rushing yards per game at the end of the season. Additionally, NU gained 157 yards on the Buckeyes — a unit that gave up an average of 104 rushing yards per game last season — in a 52-3 loss at Ryan Field.

But in 2020, there is no room for error against a ferocious Ohio State defense.

The Buckeyes have allowed more than 150 rushing yards just once this season and held Indiana to -1 yard on 16 carries in a late November matchup.

In seven regular-season games, the Cats’ running game topped that magic number just twice, performances that Fitzgerald hopes his team can replicate on Saturday.

“Just got to have everything operating,” Fitzgerald said. “It is like the engine. If you don’t have the oil, it won’t work. If the pistons aren’t firing right, it won’t work. You got the wrong fuel, it won’t work. You got to have everything operate in the right way.”

The keys to a successful ground operation at Lucas Oil Stadium may be Porter and Hull, who position coach Lou Ayeni has called the running back room’s hardest worker and “it factor,” respectively.

In recent weeks, Porter’s time on the field has increased, and with it, his level of play. After scoring his first career touchdown against the Spartans, he led the team with 24 carries against Illinois.

“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.”

Meanwhile, Hull brings explosiveness to NU’s rushing attack. Against the Fighting Illini, he scored a 32-yard touchdown on a fourth-and-four and sprinted for a career-long 50-yard rush.

Both underclassmen are seeing more playing time due to struggles from the team’s veteran backs. Junior Isaiah Bowser — the Cats’ lead rusher to begin the season — has seen significantly reduced carries after he was benched against Wisconsin for fumbling at the one-yard line. Sophomore Drake Anderson is facing a similar predicament. He was benched during the Illinois game after losing his first and only carry of the game deep in NU’s red zone.

Additionally, senior Jesse Brown has not played since the Cats’ win over Purdue in mid-November.

It is not yet known who will start in the backfield in NU’s biggest — and most difficult — game of the season. But with a conference title for the first time in two decades and a potential New Year’s Six bowl game on the line, Fitzgerald knows his running back room will be ready to face the Buckeyes.

“If you solidify your job and play at an All-Big Ten level and play consistently, you’re typically going to earn that role,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re going to be in there probably the majority of the reps.”

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