November 6, 2008

Previewing NU: Offense

While Northwestern has certainly had its down years in the past in terms of its competitiveness in the Big Ten Conference race, opponents could always expect a strong offensive showing out of the Wildcats.

This season, that was the case, and the team would be led by quarterback C.J. Bacher and standout running back Tyrell Sutton.

Northwestern will no longer have the luxury of relying on the two leaders. Particularly the running back, as Sutton will be out for the season with surgery to an injury to his wrist in the team's loss to Indiana.

"For someone who has firsthand experience with a major injury, I know how challenging this is for Tyrell," coach Pat Fitzgerald said in a statement following the injury. "But our football team will respond. We always talk to our team about being one play away."

While an injury to Bacher's hamstring wasn't as bad - the quarterback could be ready to resume his starting role when the Buckeyes invade Evanston Saturday - Northwestern has continued to win despite losses to their critical players.

Without both Bacher and Sutton, Northwestern cruised to a tough-fought victory over a solid Minnesota squad, particularly because of strong replacements on offense.

Fitzgerald has been cornered with figuring out how to deal with replacements, particularly on offense, and addressed his team's ability to make it through the adversity of losing players.

Something that can be detrimental to a team has turned out to be just a minor bump in the road for Fitzgerald and his staff.

"It's definitely a combination of things. No. 1 is our depth, which shows a great job of our coaches in recruiting, a tremendous job of our strength coaches this summer preparing our guys," Fitzgerald said. "We've had multiple guys step up and that just shows they're focused, they're in great shape physically and mentally to be prepared when that opportunity when it's presented. That's' what's in their control. What's out of their control is when they get the opportunity. To see how they've stepped up, it's a testament to our program."

Reserve quarterback Mike Kafka made a case for more playing time at the signal-caller position even if Bacher is healthy given his gift for adding a running dimension to the field.

Against the Gophers, Kafka rushed for 217 yards - a school record for rushing yards for a quarterback - and went 12-of-16 through the air for 143 yards and touchdowns.

"I thought he managed the game well. There were a few throws he'd like to have back, one where the DB made a nice break on the ball and took it to the house," Fitzgerald said in his weekly press conference Monday. "I really liked the way he ran the ball, stayed behind his pads and made good decisions. When the plays weren't there he didn't try to force the ball, just played within himself and took what the defense gave him. That's what we need to do."

That being said, there wasn't much left over for reserve running back Omar Conteh, who rushed for only 12 yards on 12 carries against the Gophers. With Sutton on the shelf for the season, Northwestern will surely like to have a solid weapon in Conteh, and things could be different for the backup if Bacher returns to the Northwestern lineup.

"I thought Minnesota tried to take away the inside zone play so we had to run the ball to the perimeter," Fitzgerald said. "When the option was working it gave Omar an opportunity for some runs. Our game plan is going to be dictated by what we see and what we think we can take advantage of. I thought Omar played well."

With the possible return of Bacher, the passing game will most likely return as the fixture of the Wildcats' attack, and the stable of wide receivers the signal-caller has to work with are better than average.

Bacher's favorite targets this season have been Ross Lane, who has brought down 28 catches for 397 yards, and Rasheed Ward, who has caught 35 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns.

Having just lost two games in the conference, backed by 27 points per game, Northwestern will certainly be poised to take on the Buckeyes in Evanston.

"We're excited to come home and play in front of our fans and we've had tremendous support from our students all year," Fitzgerald said. "Looks like it will be a sellout and it will be fun to play in front of that environment. We're playing the three-time defending Big Ten champions, talented across the board with great receivers and a talented young quarterback who is backed up by a senior who can play anywhere in this conference."

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