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Northwestern DT C.J. Robbins is healthy at just the right time

EVANSTON, Ill. -- A lower-body injury to junior Sean McEvilly has tested Northwestern’s depth at defensive tackle. The Wildcats were thin at the position to begin with, and losing McEvilly, a stout run defender, gives them one fewer option.

The effects of his absence were plain during Saturday night’s 40-30 loss to Ohio State, when Carlos Hyde and Braxton Miller accounted for 236 of the Buckeyes’ 248 rushing yards. At his weekly Monday press conference, coach Pat Fitzgerald insisted Northwestern’s inability to stop Ohio State’s run game could be attributed to lapses in fundamentals – inability to shed blocks, missed tackles, etc.

InsideNU X & O’s analyst and former Wildcat Nate Williams had a different idea. Williams wrote the following in a column published Tuesday: “The interior DL routinely got pushed back 1-3 yards on every running play. OSU was able to “Big Boy” our interior DL any time they wanted”

The latter seems the more convincing argument, the same one I came up with while watching from the press box. And if that is the case – if Northwestern’s thinned defensive tackle rotation was subject to “Big Boy” treatment from Ohio State’s massive offensive line – then the Wildcats could be in trouble this Saturday against Wisconsin, the nation’s top running team at 7.44 yards per carry.

What makes the Badgers run game so good?

“They do such a good job schematically of always trying to outnumber you at the point of attack,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday. “If you stop them with that stuff, then they’re going to come back and bring some counter action the other way or misdirection. They’ve got a great fly package where they’re getting their speed guys out on the perimeter.”

The Badgers’ potent backfield trio of Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement is, needless to say, tough to slow down. Ohio State managed to do it in a seven-point win over Wisconsin last Saturday, yielding just 104 yards on the ground, nearly 200 below the Badgers’ season average (Gordon did miss much of that game, to be fair).

Northwestern would have a much easier time replicating that defensive effort with its full complement of defensive tackles, but McEvilly was not listed on this week’s depth chart and is not expected to return by Saturday. That means the Wildcats will face another top rushing attack without arguably its best run-stuffing tackle.

The longer McEvilly is forced to sit out, the more playing time redshirt sophomore C.J. Robbins will get. After just one game, Robbins feels comfortable in his expanded role.

“I feel good,” Robbins said Tuesday. “I’m happy to be back. It’s cool to be back out there again.”

Shortly after arriving at Northwestern as a freshman in 2011, Robbins fractured his foot and was forced to sit out the season. One year later, a day before leaving for the Wildcats’ annual preseason trip to camp Kenosha, Robbins dislocated his toe. He was forced to miss another season. Robbins has stayed injury-free through five games in 2013, and the Wildcats are much better off at defensive tackle as a result.

While Robbins had zero game experience to his name entering the season, he is fast becoming one of the most important backups on Northwestern’s roster. Robbins is the third option at defensive tackle behind Chance Carter and Will Hampton, and – barring a speedy recovery from McEvilly – should continue to log plenty of snaps.

He was on the field when Ohio State’s Hyde pummeled the Wildcats for big chunks of yards in the second half, and at no point did he feel Northwestern was overpowered at the line of scrimmage. Robbins agrees with Fitzgerald, in other words.

“It just came down to technique,” he said. “Just digging in that extra little step, and staying low and doing the fundamentals that we practice.

“It’s Big Ten football – everybody’s strong. It really comes down to technique and who had that little inch and getting separation.”

If the solution really is that simple, then Northwestern should be able to keep Wisconsin’s ground game in check Saturday. If Williams’ analysis is correct…Yikes.