Northwestern football: Who will the Wildcats go to at running back?
With the way freshmen Cam Porter and Evan Hull ran the ball last weekend, it’s certainly possible the Northwestern Wildcats finally identified their best running back options during the final game of the regular season.
Granted, it was against Illinois, but Porter and Hull carried a large workload — despite not seeing the field all that often previously this season — and had huge days, combining for 291 rushing yards.
A strong running game could go a long way in the Wildcats’ chances to keep the B1G title game close against Ohio State on Saturday in Indianapolis.
It was largely a meaningless game for Northwestern in a 28-10 home win over the Fighting Illini in Evanston, but the Wildcats coaching staff appears to have sent a message. Sophomore Drake Anderson, who is leading the team in rushing yards, fumbled on the first play of the Wildcats’ first possession inside the 5-yard line, and he never saw the field again.
Instead of Anderson, it wasn’t even Northwestern’s second leading rusher, junior Isaiah Bowser, who stepped in. The Wildcats turned to Porter, a true freshman, to get the bulk of the carries, and he took full advantage. Despite coming into the game with just 8 rushes, Porter carried Northwestern to victory with 142 yards and 2 TDs on 24 attempts. And he didn’t even touch the ball in the fourth quarter.
Hull took over late in the third quarter with the game in hand. A redshirt freshman with just 10 previous carries on the season, Hull made some explosive runs, including a 50-yarder and 32-yard TD romp on fourth down to put the Wildcats up 28-3. In the end, he actually led the team in rushing with 149 yards on 13 carries.
What this means for Saturday’s matchup with Ohio State is anybody’s guess.
It’s possible head coach Pat Fitzgerald just wanted to rest his best players as much as possible, as he did pull quarterback Peyton Ramsey fairly early in the second half. That is especially the case considering Ohio State benefited from Michigan canceling their game last weekend, giving the Buckeyes extra time to rest and prepare for the B1G title game.
Having said that, the Northwestern coaching staff has to be thinking about which running back will give the Wildcats the best chance to find success against the Ohio State defense. The Buckeyes rank third in the B1G, allowing just 3.4 yards per carry.
Despite the challenge, sustaining long drives and keeping the ball on the ground will limit possessions, which is the way teams find themselves with a chance to win when they are far and away the less talented team. And that is definitely the case heading into this one. Keeping the clock moving and finishing with touchdowns will keep the Wildcats in this game, so the success of the running game will be crucial.
So who should the Wildcats turn to?
As strange as it sounds, I’d keep riding the hot hand and go with a true freshman at running back in the biggest game of the season. Running plenty of Wildcat offense, Porter really seemed to spark Northwestern, which ended up with 411 yards on the ground.
Drake and Bowser have seen the bulk of the carries most of the season, and neither has taken the job and, uh, run with it. Bowser actually has the most carries among the backs with 77 for 229 yards, which is just 3 yards per carry. Anderson has slightly better numbers, carrying 62 times for 256 yards, 4.1 per rush.
Playing in just 5 games, Porter leads the team in rushing touchdowns with 3 and is averaging 5.4 yards per carry, though it’s a limited sample size with just 32 attempts.
Northwestern needs to mix it up and give Ohio State plenty of looks, and Porter deserves a shot to show he can give the Wildcats the best chance to pull off an historic upset.