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What’s brought about Isaiah Bowser’s sudden success?

A deep dive into Northwestern’s much-improved running game over the past three weeks.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern’s run scheme under Mick McCall was pretty simple, especially with Justin Jackson in the backfield. The shifty, slightly undersized back excelled at picking out holes on slow-developing zone plays, seemingly knowing exactly when to get up the field and through a swiftly closing gap. Jeremy Larkin did some things differently, but early this year he largely carried on that tradition.

But with Jackson gone, Larkin medically retired, and other injuries befalling more veteran running backs, the Wildcats have turned to a different type of runner entirely. Isaiah Bowser, a freshman out of Sidney, Ohio enrolled early partially to put on muscle, and already stands at 6-foot-1 and 216 pounds. Bowser, like the video game character, would best be described as a big bruiser. Northwestern isn’t garnering a ton of explosive plays with him as the lead back, but by tailoring their scheme to his strengths, they’ve stayed on track over the past three weeks.

The Wildcats have handed the ball to Bowser 81 times in the games against Rutgers, Wisconsin, and Notre Dame. Just three of those carries have gone for negative yardage. Largely, the Wildcats have avoided being stuffed across those games thanks to diversity in the way they run the ball. It’s also helped that with Bowser maturing as a running back, his vision has improved and he’s starting to pick out holes more clearly. Here’s a deeper look at what NU has done with Bowser as its primary back.

Game 1

The scheme changes started against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have struggled in pretty much every phase this year, including run defense, so this wasn’t a massive test for Bowser. But any time a team has to lean on a back with one career carry in the middle of their season, regardless of his high school production totals, success is far from guaranteed. So Mick McCall and the Wildcats changed things up... but it took them a couple of quarters.

Bowser took it in for a touchdown on a run from under center inside the 5-yard-line on the first drive, which is not uncommon for a Northwestern running back, especially considering the Wildcats dialed up two outside zones and an inside zone for the rest of his runs in the first two drives (they gained 5 yards, with a holding penalty on Bennett Skowronek bringing one back).

But then, they stopped giving the talented freshman the ball. In a span of nearly 20 minutes from the beginning of the second quarter to about five minutes into the third quarter, Bowser didn’t touch the rock. Northwestern was outscored 15-0 during that time. When he finally got another carry, the outside zone seemed bottled up:

Though it resulted in a ten-yard gain, Bowser had to do all the work, ultimately breaking three tackles after being unable to see any holes develop.

Then, Northwestern started opening some gaps. This is nominally an inside zone, but the blocking of Blake Hance, and especially Sam Gerak, who had an excellent game, bust open a gap on the left side:

Bowser was finally starting to see more carries, but his next five runs were still traditional zones. They went for just a combined 13 yards, despite this 7-yard gain where Gerak and Hance open another monstrous hole:

But after his 5-yard touchdown on another power run gave the Wildcats the lead, McCall finally decided to run it down the throats of the Scarlet Knights. On the final drive of the game, Northwestern iced it with four zone runs, including the beauty below where Bowser makes a gorgeous cut to pick up a third down.

NU also went with four power runs, including a game-sealing 11-yard gain where Rutgers knows what is coming and the Wildcats still ram it right down their throat.

All in all, Bowser finished the game with 24 carries for 108 yards. Six of those carries were inside zones from shotgun, each of which went for at least four. He also had two huge outside zone gains, but discounting those and the holding penalty (which goes in the statistics because it was a spot foul) he carried five times for zero yards on outside zones. Meanwhile, from under center Bowser carried 10 times for 36 yards and two touchdowns, most of the yardage coming on the game-winning drive.

Game 2

Next up was a slightly stiffer test in the Badgers. Though Wisconsin’s injury-depleted defense had been below average against the run, nobody had much faith leading up to the game in Northwestern moving the ball on the ground.

But Mick McCall continued to get creative, giving Bowser a great chance to succeed. After a straight, down-blocked off-tackle shotgun run for eight yards to start the second drive of the game, Bowser ripped off another eight on this fake RPO outside zone:

Again, Bowser is breaking tackles, but by holding backside defenders for a split-second with the pass-fake, McCall gives him the chance to take on minimal contact as he finishes the run. Two more nice chunks later, Thorson cashed in on a successful sneak.

Bowser had just a couple of runs on the next two drives, including the goal-line turnover on downs when he should’ve gotten at least a chance. On Northwestern’s fifth drive (which also resulted in a Thorson rushing touchdown, but one with a bit more pizzazz), he had three carries, including a touchdown called back thanks to a holding on J.B. Butler. After a two minute drill to close the half, Northwestern had the lead and Bowser was playing fine, but hadn’t quite gotten untracked. That changed pretty quickly.

After a Wisconsin three and out, Northwestern seemed to resolve to run it down the throat of the Badgers. The defense saw this power run from under center coming, but the blockers executed their assignments and Bowser exploded through the hole for the first down:

This time, Thorson hit McGowan to cap things off. The Wildcats had catapulted themselves into a two score lead, and Bowser helped make sure it stayed that way. After some more chunk runs in Northwestern’s remaining two drives of the third quarter, he ripped off four more on an RPO inside the ten. Then, McCall busted out another new play call, this time from inside the 5-yard-line: a counter.

The play was correctly blocked, and Bowser slammed right through the middle for a game-clinching TD.

Down the stretch, Northwestern continued to pound it successfully against a demoralized Wisconsin defense, including Bowser’s longest run of the day on 3rd and 10:

No frills here: Bowser just successfully bounces it outside and through Wisconsin. Northwestern, having dominated Wisconsin at the point of attack, laughed all the way to control of the Big Ten West.

Thanks to the Wildcats holding a lead for most of the game, Bowser’s numbers are tilted towards power runs this time. He carried 21 times from under center, with three outside plays (including an atypical for Northwestern toss play) going nowhere. But 18 inside carries, the type that Northwestern used sparingly with Jackson and Larkin, went for 64 yards and a touchdown, with a holding penalty bringing back another score. More importantly, including his 13 shotgun carries for 49 yards, Bowser ran the ball 34 times without ever recording a negative play. Northwestern didn’t have a ton of explosion against Wisconsin, but the run game always kept the offense on schedule, and that was all they needed.

Game 3

Notre Dame posed an entirely different challenge. The Fighting Irish, though slightly better against the pass, were definitively the best rushing defense Northwestern has faced besides Michigan. With big, playmaking linemen like Khalid Kareem and Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame seemed to have the clear advantage at the point of attack.

So Mick McCall, in arguably his most impressive performance to date, broke out some new tricks. After expanding the power game and pulling out a couple of rarely-used plays against the Badgers, he went the extra mile to try to move the ball against the Fighting Irish. It started on the first drive, and though a real read-option may have worked better than the fake that resulted in no gain, it established that McCall was going to try to make things happen in the running game.

Northwestern really got things going offensively as the first quarter came to a close. This was a pretty typical power run, but Bowser helped continue to establish his bona fides on national TV, impressively carrying 265-pound Daelin Hayes for 3+ yards:

As the Wildcats crossed midfield, they got to work. First, they pulled right tackle and Rashawn Slater to create running room, which is typical of a Northwestern-trademarked outside zone...but not a run from under center:

Continuing to gain ground, they ran the play again for two yards before Bowser powered it to the goal line, setting the stage for another Thorson sneak TD.

The Wildcats didn’t try their first outside zone until the first run of the next drive. This was a less inspired play call. As you’d expect on a slow-developing run play against one of the best fronts in the country, it was blown up. But Bowser showed significant maturity as a runner. Seeing pressure through the left “A” gap (from the offense’s perspective), he cut it up the field for an impressive gain of 14:

After a successful off-tackle run, this drive bogged down. But coming out of halftime tied, Northwestern continued to pull from the deepest recesses of the playbook. A fake RPO picked up four, before a very rare draw play nearly went for a big play.

With just six in the box, if Cam Green’s second-level cut block had been successful, this one could’ve been a home run. Instead, the tide began to turn.

But the Wildcats continued to innovate. Here, a short-side outside zone, a slow-developing play common in the Jackson era, is helped along by both Bowser’s vision and a fake backside screen:

Bowser sees the correct hole, and thanks to just seven defenders being on his side of the field, he’s able to explode all the way to the safety.

But Northwestern’s offense couldn’t find consistent success, with Thorson failing to pick up his end of the bargain against a stifling Irish defense. As the Wildcats continued to allow scores, Bowser had just one more big run: a simple inside zone that ND wasn’t expecting in a late-game situation, freeing it up for a 20 yard gain.

The Wildcats couldn’t control the game down the stretch against Notre Dame like they did against more comparable opponents in Wisconsin and Rutgers. But Bowser still found success thanks to increased vision and McCall’s tweaks, with 11 shotgun carries going for 61 yards, and 10 non-goal line situation inside carries for 29 yards. Through the first half, when things were competitive, he had 14 carries for 51, another very good sign. And this time, Bowser had just one carry for a loss.

Mick McCall has been criticized plenty on this blog, and most corners of the Northwestern internet, for stale offensive game plans and a lack of adjustment. And most of the time, I find myself agreeing with those complaints. But faced with a true freshman power back, McCall has nearly evenly split his carries between under center and traditional shotgun looks (43 and 38 respectively), and has brought wrinkles we’ve seen only sparingly.

In addition, the under center runs have added a more consistent power dynamic to the offense, which one group in particular definitely enjoys. “It’s a lot more fun to run downhill, especially just man vs man, having to move your guys off the ball,” said JB Butler after the Wisconsin game. “And [Bowser] only having one cut, or only needing to hit one guy, is more fun for us as well, because we get to keep the chains rolling and get to keep the other team’s offense off the field.”

The play-action component of these under center looks, along with the passing game in general, is still coming along slowly. Thorson and the receivers will certainly need to get things going for sustained rushing success to come with it. But after looking lost initially post-Jeremy Larkin, the rushing game is back from the dead. With Bowser at the helm, making vast strides every week, and McCall changing things up from the press box, Northwestern can at least be cautiously confident heading into another big game against another stout front.