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Northwestern football season in review: Grading the running backs

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The run game was a huge weakness midway through the season, but Isaiah Bowser changed all that

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’ve had some time to reflect after Northwestern wrapped up its 2018 season with a Holiday Bowl victory, it’s time to go back and break down the performance of each position group during the 9-win campaign. We’ll give out some individual grades and also provide an early preview into what that unit will look like in 2019. We move on to a position that dealt with plenty of turmoil: the running backs.

Overall grade: B

Before the season, we anticipated big things for Northwestern’s running backs behind Jeremy Larkin. Of course, Larkin had to medically retire because of a cervical stenosis diagnosis. Like Moses and the Israelites, NU’s rush attack wandered in the desert for what felt like an interminable amount of time, but was really like four weeks.

And even with the excellent play of Isaiah Bowser, the Wildcats finished dead last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game. Still, the run game improved substantially in the middle portion of the season, and NU’s ability to control time of possession helped the team immensely against Rutgers, Iowa, Illinois, and Minnesota. What’s more, NU’s running backs were risk-free, going the whole season without losing a fumble.

What was a glaring weakness at the beginning of the season became an asset, and the running backs deserve some credit for that.

Player grades

Isaiah Bowser: A-

Stats: 866 yards rushing on 4.4 YPC, six touchdowns, four games with 100+ yards rushing, seven receptions, 77 yards

After churning through a handful of running backs after Jeremy Larkin’s retirement, Northwestern gave Isaiah Bowser a chance against Rutgers. He ran with it, quite literally, and may have saved NU’s season in the process. Of course, Northwestern’s offensive line played a lot better in the second half of the season, and the defense bailed the team out time and time again, but does Northwestern beat Rutgers and Iowa without Bowser?

Bowser closed the regular season with four 100+ yard games in the last six contests, including 166 against Illinois and 165 against Iowa. He showed the ability to handle a strenuous workload, run through defenders, and fall forward, time and time again. The Sidney, Ohio native was NU’s best find of the season, and the Wildcats have plenty to look forward to over the remainder of Bowser’s career.

Jeremy Larkin: INC (A in our hearts)

Stats: 346 yards rushing on 4.6 YPC, five touchdowns, 19 receptions for 127 yards

Larkin was Northwestern’s best offensive player for the first three games of 2018, and NU missed him over the season’s final 11 games. But more importantly, Larkin stopped playing football when he needed to, avoiding a potentially serious on-field injury. He admirably continued to contribute as a coach for the rest of the season.

John Moten IV: B

Stats: 204 yards rushing on 4.4 YPC, three touchdowns, nine receptions, 62 yards

Moten, along with anyone NU threw out there at running back, struggled to find any sort of rhythm after Jeremy Larkin’s retirement. He managed 13 carries for 36 yards and a score against Michigan, but injuries prevented him from playing at full strength until the Illinois game almost two months later. Moten’s biggest moment came in the first quarter of the Big Ten Championship.

Even though Gus Johnson blew the call, that’s a highlight neither Moten nor Northwestern fans in Indianapolis and beyond will ever forget.

Solomon Vault: C-

Stats: 69 yards rushing on 1.6 YPC, eight receptions, 13 yards

I think many of us at Inside NU were excited to see what Vault, a dynamic kickoff returner, could do this year after missing all of 2017 due to injury. Previously a wide receiver, Vault got shifted to running back after Larkin’s retirement and got 29 combined carries against Michigan, Michigan State, and Nebraska. Vault managed just 40 yards. NU’s offensive line struggled to open holes in those three games and Vault dealt with a couple nagging injuries but it came clear pretty quickly that the senior was not the man for the job. Vault didn’t make the trip to Rutgers, and the rest was history.

Chad Hanaoka: A-

Stats: 121 yards rushing on 5.5 YPC, 12 receptions for 63 yards

So, uh, we didn’t expect Chad Hanaoka to be making big plays for Northwestern this year. He was chosen to don the No. 1 jersey in 2018, a nod to his incredible journey from video coordinator to a Wildcat. But generously listed at 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds, no one expected Hanaoka to be flipping opposing defenders into the air by mid-October.

Hanaoka developed into a NU’s third-down back, perhaps the best blocking running back on the team and a capable pass catcher. He had a host of important plays against Rutgers, and his 13-yard run on 3rd and 9 against Iowa set up Bennett Skowronek’s incredible catch and NU’s Big Ten West title. In a season full of great stories, the story of Chad Hanaoka was among the best.

Drake Anderson: INC

Stats: 36 yards on 3 YPC

Northwestern really threw everything against the wall to see what stuck after Larkin’s retirement. Anderson, a freshman, got an extended look before Bowser did. He showed some elusiveness and speed in the two games he played in, but Northwestern obviously moved on to Bowser after the Rutgers. In the end, Anderson will get to redshirt because he only played in two games.

Looking ahead to 2019:

The Wildcats are set for 2019 and beyond with Bowser returning as the presumptive starter. He’s not the athlete and the pass-catching threat Larkin was, but Bowser should continue to develop as a sophomore. Most importantly, he can handle a huge workload and he takes care of the football.

Hanaoka and Vault are gone, but Moten will be back for another year of backup duty, along with Drake Anderson in his redshirt freshman year. Don’t forget Jesse Brown, either. The native of Georgia was hurt for much of 2018 and pretty much only saw time on special teams, but he showed some capabilities with two touchdowns on nine carries back in 2017.

Any discussion of 2019 Northwestern Wildcats football is going to revolve around Hunter Johnson, but NU has to be pretty satisfied with what they have in Bowser and Co., especially because this program lost Jeremy Larkin and Justin Jackson in consecutive years. Running back should be another solid position next fall.