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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 9: Isaiah Bowser

The running back came out of nowhere to revive an NU run game that looked dead in the water midway through last season.

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

To kick off a summer of football preview content at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern’s Top 10 Most Important Players for 2019.

We’ve chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players “who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season.” However, we recognize that that’s still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean the best player. It could mean a player in a crucial role, or even players who have underperformed in past seasons who now need to step up.

Our staff has created a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement, but ultimately highlights ten players that will undoubtedly factor heavily into the seasons success. We’ll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of each member.

In the second installment, we’ll take a look at sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser.

Avery Zimmerman (Rank: N/A)

What Bowser did last year to help Northwestern is nothing short of remarkable. After a string of injuries gave the Ohio native his shot in the backfield, he cemented himself as the Wildcats’ number one back thanks to a string of impressive performances against conference opponents. But that story itself is what leads me to believe that Bowser isn’t one of the most important players on this 2019 Northwestern team. There’s no question that the big, surprisingly shifty back gives the NU offense an added dimension of power, but I’m not convinced that John Moten IV or Drake Anderson wouldn’t be able to produce at a similar level as the lead man.

Last year, Bowser averaged 4.4 yards per carry on 197 carries. Northwestern’s next three-most used ball carriers averaged 3.9 yards per carry on 162 totes. Moten alone matched that 4.4 number, albeit on just 46 carries. It’s not a knock on Bowser at all, but the running back position just doesn’t seem to provide a significant amount of variance in overall production. Take Jonathan Taylor for example. Wisconsin’s star back, who finished eighth in Heisman voting last year, averaged 7.1 yards per carry. The two guys behind him? 6.55.

Bowser provided some legendary moments for Northwestern in 2018, and he’s in line to play a big part in NU’s 2019 campaign. However, that’s not enough to warrant a spot on my most important players list, much like nearly any running back that may grace the Wildcat backfield.

Eli Karp (Rank: 9)

Bowser showed spots of greatness and an impressive maturity curve as last season rolled on and he got more comfortable as the starter. One instance that comes to mind is his catching of a short pass in the flat and subsequent juke of a defender from a few yards away to pick up a crucial first down late in the game against Iowa, in a situation in which a traditional downhill runner with nothing else to his game probably would have gone nowhere.

More than anything, though, he was heavily leaned upon as a freshman to do a lot of the dirty work. Bowser’s running style is primarily downhill and bruising, and that is likely not changing. Inherently, that style does not create many plays on its own but takes advantage of well-executed blocking and wears down defenses.

This is not a knock on Bowser’s running style or talent; actually, it’s refreshing to see an old-school power back in some B1G weather. He helped revive the Northwestern running game as it was on its last legs, but we saw Jeremy Larkin rip off some head-turning runs behind the same offensive line early in the season. If the tailback could show more playmaking ability, I’d move him up the list.

With another year under his belt and big game experience, we might just see a fully two-dimensional human wrecking ball. However, the inconsistent offensive line Bowser ran behind lost three starters to graduation; his job is not getting easier. For now, he’s still an important piece of the NU offense: a reliable carrier of the rock who will knock down a few would-be tacklers per game, with no real indication that others on the roster could match his production across his grueling workload.