by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
The “Northwestern players are smart” lede is one of the most overused generalizations in the college football, but that won’t stop coach Pat Fitzgerald from using it any time he sees fit.
But if anyone at NU lives up to the “student-athlete” motto, it’s senior left tackle Patrick Ward, who is part of the reason the Wildcats finish with a top academic progress rate year-in and year-out.
“I don’t have all the GPAs of all the college football players in the country, but I’m not so sure there’s anybody smarter than Patrick Ward in college football today,” Fitzgerald said.
How good has Ward been in the classroom?
“He’s gotten one A-minus since he’s been here — mechanical engineering,” Fitzgerald said. “There’s probably some bright guys, but I know we don’t have anybody else with only one A-minus (as his worst grade) in mechanical engineering at Northwestern, so I’ll put Patrick’s grades up against anybody.
“That’s pretty ridiculous. I got, I think, one A-minus (as his best grade) when I was here, all four years. I didn’t get a lot of A-minuses here."
While the “student-athlete” term is all well and good, the “athlete” part of Ward’s title is what most fans are concerned about every Saturday, and he’s held his own on that end this year, as well.
“I think he only had one ‘minus’ all week,” Fitzgerald said. “He was pretty close to that perfect game that you can throw for an offensive lineman… It was actually on a quarterback sneak.”
Ward was pretty close to flawless against South Dakota, helping pave the way for 277 rushing yards against the Coyotes. In fact, after a rough start against Syracuse, the entire offensive line has settled in and is playing at a higher level than it did all of last year.
The last two weeks, NU’s offensive priority has been to control the line of scrimmage and establish the run, and it has been about as dominant as a team can be, outrushing Boston College and South Dakota by a combined total of 570-to-76 yards.
“The offensive line, in general, is a very hard-working group and they’re extremely close,” running back Mike Trumpy said. “Part of that is they’re constantly working together, constantly hanging out together and they’re got such great chemistry where they just feed off each other — pass blocking and run blocking, as well, and really controlling the line of scrimmage.”
While the NU offensive line is certainly playing at a higher level than it did last year, there’s a difference between doing that against Boston College and South Dakota and doing it against the Big Ten heavyweights. Indiana shouldn’t present a big challenge — the Hoosiers surrendered 206 rushing yards to Ball State two weeks ago — but much tougher games are coming in the near future, starting with Penn State in two weeks.
“The challenges get a lot more difficult (entering Big Ten season),” Fitzgerald said.
But if NU’s left tackle can continue be as successful against opposing defenses as he is in the classroom, the Cats’ offensive production should be just fine.