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Northwestern running game smothered, offensive line overmatched in loss to Duke

Justin Jackson had a career-low seven carries and the game got out of hand quickly.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

The first play went about as well as Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall and, really, anyone on Northwestern, could have wanted.

Jelani Roberts came around the formation on the fly sweep. He got good blocking from his fellow wide receivers on the edge and darted for 15 yards. Every player executed his assignment. Northwestern got one of its shiftiest players into the open field, and he took advantage.

It was exactly what Northwestern had planned going into today’s tilt with Duke — usually the first dozen or so plays are scripted and put into the before kickoff — and Mick McCall’s first design had worked.

It should have been an encouraging sign.

Instead, it was the longest run of the day by a significant margin.

For the second straight week, Northwestern had an underwhelming first half, and for the second straight week, it also had opportunities to get back in the ball game.

This week, the biggest opportunity came on Northwestern’s opening drive of the second half. Pat Fitzgerald’s bunch took some semblance of momentum into the halftime break after a second-quarter score from Justin Jackson, and that momentum carried over after the break. Joe Gaziano notched Northwestern’s first sack of the season, forcing a Duke punt. Northwestern moved into Blue Devil territory on the ensuing drive, picking up a first down on a short run from Jackson.

That was Jackson’s final run of the afternoon. By the time the starters had exited, Northwestern had a grand total of one rushing yard.

“Horrible” was the only way Clayton Thorson could describe that abysmal number. Thorson pointed out that he has to be better to help unload the box, and while that may be true, his struggles weren’t the main issue today.

Northwestern has to be a run-first team. Last week, even though the rushing attack wasn’t efficient — Jackson managed 109 yards but needed 30 carries to do so — Northwestern was able to stick to the ground game. His seven carries from today’s game marks a new career low. Though Fitzgerald admitted it was never going to be a full day regardless for the dinged-up star , the lack of success is astonishing.

The reasons, when bunched together, all come back to the same thing.

“We couldn’t get that running game going on early on, so we’re throwing on a lot of third-and-long situations,” Doles said. “I think a lot of that comes back to offensive line not being able to execute in the run game early on. That’s something we’re going to take accountability for and get better from.”

“I’m not sure it has as much to do with Justin as it has to do with us not winning one-on-ones up front,” Fitzgerald said. “Give credit to Duke. They out-executed us and outhit us.”

“It’s tough to put the blame on one person or one thing,” Thorson said. “I think all-around we have to be better. Just little things that we’re not doing right, and it’s costing us.”

It’s the same story we’ve heard from all of Northwestern’s bad losses in Jackson’s career — against Michigan and Iowa two years ago, against Western Michigan and Illinois State last year and against Duke this year. Even with the improvements Thorson has made and the obvious growth he has shown, Northwestern won’t win without a strong showing from Jackson. Many times, it won’t even be competitive. And that’s not an indictment of Thorson nor the targets around him, because it holds true for most any team: When a star is completely canceled out, it’s going to be very difficult to win. Northwestern is now 6-13 when Jackson fails to reach the century mark and 1-8 when he fails to record at least 15 carries.

One key issue is the lack of continuity up front. The Wildcats played eight offensive linemen against Duke, one week after playing nine against Nevada.

“It’s about performance,” Fitzgerald said of the rotations up front. “When there’s a clear guy who’s a head-and-shoulders starter — Tommy Doles, Brad North — they play. When we’ve got other guys who have not seized the job, we’re gonna have to rotate them.”

That means freshmen — both redshirt (Jared Thomas, Nik Urban and Gunnar Vogel) and true (Rashawn Slater) — at both tackle spots. Blake Hance, who seemingly lost his left tackle job this offseason and moved to guard in the starting lineup, shuffled between the two positions all afternoon long. For four linemen alone, Duke was the first collegiate game they played in and lost.

For Doles, one of the more experienced players on that line, the youthful group has to have a “full steam ahead” attitude.

“When you hear us saying ‘It’s all about going 1-0 next week’ it can sound kind of robotic, but it’s really the mentality that we need to take, because if you don’t — you can try to look at the entire season all the time — you’re gonna get overwhelmed by that,” Doles explained.

On Saturday, Northwestern was overwhelmed. The team was out-coached and out-played — Fitzgerald opening admitted it — and those issues were brutally exposed up front. Northwestern has to be able to run the ball. I know it, you know it, Northwestern knows it and opponents know it. This game showed as much. Until the Wildcats can consistently give one of the best backs in college football history space to operate — or are at the very least willing to stay with him — these duds that have plagued recent seasons will continue this season. Considering this is Jackson’s swansong year, that would be extremely disappointing.