by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
At halftime of Northwestern’s 22-13 win over Boston College, coach Pat Fitzgerald delivered a vote of confidence to his offensive line.
“We made a decision that we felt like — especially the way the flow of the game was going — that we could control the line of scrimmage,” Fitzgerald said. “We made a full commitment to run the football.”
And that decision paid off. The offensive line put together its best performance of the season, allowing the offense to rush for 293 yards and holding Boston College to just two sacks. It was a well-deserved vote of confidence for a unit that has struggled at times this year, especially in the opener against Syracuse.
“It’s awesome,” center Brandon Vitabile said. “It means they have enough confidence in you to put the game on your back. They wanted us to take over and execute our blocks and use our fundamentals and use what we’ve been taught. To get the coaches’ confidence like that is pretty awesome in a game that was as close as it was.”
The offensive line has a strange set-up this year. It’s experienced on the left side with returning starters Patrick Ward and Brian Mulroe at left tackle and left guard, respectively, and with Vitabile at center. However, the Wildcats had two new starters in fifth-year senior Chuck Porcelli at right guard and sophomore Jack Konopka at right tackle.
The right side of the line — particularly Konopka — struggled against Syracuse, but he settled down and turned in a solid game against Boston College, along with Neal Deiters, who started in place of the injured Porcelli.
“I think guys have become more comfortable,” Vitabile said. “I know last year when I got my first start, I (had) butterflies in my stomach, just really nervous, so you’ve got to become comfortable with playing on a field in front of people instead of just practicing in front of the guys that you’re used to.
“We’re a family here, so practice is just practice; you’re there with the same guys all the time. But (in games) you’ve got the refs, the fans — it’s a different experience, so guys have adjusted. They’ve really stepped up and we’re hoping to move forward and keep working hard.”
That sentiment contradicts Fitzgerald’s hope during fall camp, which was that the line could gain enough experience through practice. However, he admitted that NU’s play in the trenches during fall camp wasn’t nearly good enough for the Wildcats to go anywhere in the regular season.
“We knew that we had to improve up front on both sides of the ball for us to win these football games and get us where we needed to go,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t think we’re a finished product by any stretch of the imagination, but that was priority No. 1.”
There’s still inexperience on the right side of the line — neither Konopka, nor Deiters, nor Porcelli has started a game against a Big Ten team — but the unit is battle-tested as well as it can be.
“Nobody else in the conference has played three BCS teams; we have,” Fitzgerald said. In fact, NU is the only team to have beaten three teams from BCS teams. So while “priority No. 1,” might not be “mission accomplished” just yet, the Cats have gotten work in against solid competition early, which should help them have more confidence during the Big Ten season.
It’s a high-risk, high-reward schedule to play three BCS teams to start the season. We saw the risk against Syracuse and the reward against Boston College, so now that NU is 3-0, it has ultimately paid off.
“I think we’re starting to come together on both lines,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what we wanted to see — where we were at.”
Where is the offensive line at? It’s tough to say having not seen a conference game yet, and we certainly won’t get a much better indication after NU’s game against South Dakota next week.
But three weeks in, it’s safe to say that the offensive line is in a much better place than it was on September 1. That was evident after the vote of confidence the unit received from it’s coach — one it likely wouldn’t have received just two weeks ago.