Football: Northwestern struggles on the ground, while Michigan State flourishes in a tale of two rushing attacks


Joshua Hoffman/The Daily Northwestern

Guard Charlie Schmidt blocks for a Northwestern rusher. The Wildcats’ running game struggled in a season-opening loss to Michigan State.

Patrick Andres, Senior Staffer


It wasn’t supposed to be like this for Northwestern.

This was a team settled at the running back position, perhaps more definitively than anywhere else on offense. Sophomore Cam Porter had racked up 142, 61 and 98 yards against Illinois, Ohio State and Auburn to close out his freshman season. He was supposed to be the straw that stirred the drink for a dynamic attack — a dependable workhorse with big-game experience.

Porter, of course, is lost for the season with a lower-body injury. As a result, the Wildcats (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) were forced to improvise in their 38-21 loss to Michigan State (1-0, 1-0 Big Ten).

The first three carries went to freshman Anthony Tyus III, who gained just seven yards as NU leaned on the arm of senior quarterback Hunter Johnson to march downfield on its opening possession. On third-and-four on the Spartans’ 22-yard line, graduate student Andrew Clair was brought down for a four-yard loss. Graduate student Charlie Kuhbander missed the ensuing 44-yard field goal, and the Cats couldn’t answer Michigan State’s opening score.

The merry-go-round continued the next two possessions. On the first, NU took to the air, and the Cats’ only rushing attempt was a one-yard pickup by graduate student wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. That drive petered out on the Spartans’ 22-yard line when NU turned the ball over on downs.

“Down 14-0, we were a little bit shell-shocked,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

On the second, the Cats’ only “rushing attempt” was a bizarre fumble by Johnson that ended in a six-yard loss, a rare miscue in an otherwise strong performance. Failing to touch the ball in the first quarter — after which NU trailed by two touchdowns — was sophomore Evan Hull, listed as the top running back on the depth chart this week.

By the time the Cats stabilized their running game, it was too late. In stark contrast, Michigan State hitched its wagon to junior running back Kenneth Walker III with explosive results. Walker III ran for 264 yards, the most by a Spartans running back since 2012, and four touchdowns on 23 carries.

Fitzgerald said after the game that Hull, who touched the ball just twice in the first half, had been limited recently by a lower-body injury. Hull finished with 87 yards on nine carries to lead NU, highlighted by a 49-yard dash on the Cats’ first scrimmage play of the third quarter.

“I thought the guys responded and we were able to get the running game going a little bit,” Fitzgerald said. “We got some explosive plays of our own in the run game. Just not consistently enough.”

Johnson expressed his trust in NU’s running back room, and its ability to bounce back from a mixed bag of a debut.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our running backs. [Andrew Clair], Evan [Hull], [Anthony] Tyus III, all those guys.” he said. “I’m excited for that group. A lot of those guys are new to the team, and getting their first reps. Stuff’s gonna happen the first game.”

The final totals were 326 yards for Michigan State on 37 attempts and 117 yards for the Cats on 38 attempts. The Spartans’ 8.8 yards per carry are the third-most by an opponent in the Fitzgerald era, trailing only Ohio State in 2020 and Michigan State in 2007.

Only four teams in the past 10 years — Wisconsin in 2013, Iowa in 2015, Duke in 2017, and the Buckeyes in 2020 — have outrushed NU by as many as 209 yards in a game.

“We’ll take a look at [the running game] scheme-wise, and then we’ll take a look at it execution-wise,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ll get it shored up and we’ll be better next week.”

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