As the Northwestern football program announced late Thursday night, three members of the two deep will officially miss Saturday’s game: starting running back Isaiah Bowser and backup defensive ends Eku Leota and Devin O’Rourke. We have no way of knowing how serious the injuries are at this point, but if any of the three are held out for a significant amount of time, it will have a definite impact on the program’s success.
At first glance, Bowser’s injury seems to be by far the most important. And, to be sure, the Wildcats lose a significant element of their run game without the hard-nosed back available to them. But Jesse Brown performed admirably when called upon in a third-down back role against Stanford, and though they mainly struggled against the Cardinal, redshirt first-year Drake Anderson and John Moten IV, the veteran of the group, have showed flashes of significant ability.
With Bowser out, the two will likely split the workload in terms of carries, with Brown reprising his role, albeit perhaps with some slight accompanying expansion. Anderson and Moten certainly do not possess the short-yardage acumen or consistency of Bowser, the best and most experienced rusher on the team, but their respective big-play ability adds another dimension to the offense.
Meanwhile, each offer replacement-level or even a slight improvement when compared to the incumbent back’s production in the passing game. It’s tough to know much about the pass-blocking ability of any of the three at this early stage, but while Bowser performed well in that regard at times last year, he certainly did not significantly stand out.
It’s safe to say that Northwestern’s rushing attack will be missing a dimension against UNLV. But as long as Bowser’s absence does not carry over into next week’s tilt with Michigan State, the Wildcat offense should be able to produce against a largely inferior defense coming off of a bye week. If they cannot, even in these advantageous circumstances, it would be an indictment of Mick McCall’s group writ large as opposed to the fault of any one absence.
On the other hand, the missing defensive ends, despite taking up the 4th and 5th spots in the rotation, could pose a challenge in Saturday’s game and even greater setback than Bowser’s loss possibly if these injuries continue into conference play.
Before the start of the season, the Wildcats moved a lot of pieces around on the defensive front. With Trent Goens moving to superback, and Trevor Kent flexing inside full-time to become a starter at defensive tackle alongside Alex Miller, the ranks of the defensive end began to thin. Marty Long and Mike Hankwitz love to rotate their personnel on the outside, typically bringing in two entirely new edge-rushers in passing situations.
Thanks to that movement, Leota and O’Rourke (though mainly the former, who recorded a half-sack and was around the quarterback all day) got plenty of important snaps against Stanford, perhaps even playing around half the time. With them out of the equation, the picture behind Samdup Miller, Joe Gaziano, and Earnest Brown IV becomes quite blurry.
The only other non-true first year listed at end is junior Mark Gooden, who sat out his entire sophomore season due to an apparent injury and did not appear to dress (or perhaps even travel with the team) for their season opener. If Gooden indeed is not available, it’s slim pickings.
Perhaps the easiest option fro the ‘Cats in true pass-rush situations would be to just leave Gaziano or even Samdup Miller on the outside on each play rather then flexing them to the interior or just taking them off the field. But that strategy creates more plays than the coaches are evidently comfortable with for their top three ends, and while it will probably be implemented to an extent, the ‘Cats won’t want to push their guys to the limit against UNLV.
Assuming an experienced tackle like Jake Saunders, Joe Spivak, or even Kent isn’t flexed back to the outside , which is certainly possible, Northwestern’s options begin to narrow. Jason Gold Jr., Duke Olges, or Adetomiwa Adebawore seem the most likely of the true freshman ends to see some time, and none would have to burn their shirts, but significant snaps may be a tall ask at this point of any of the trio.
Whichever solution Pat Fitzgerald and co. opt for, whether it be one of the ones I lay out above or something even more creative, the injuries have left them stretched thin at a crucial spot, and even a slight downtick in pass rush could certainly be taken advantage of by NU opponents. Neither this hole at end nor the one created by Bowser’s absence truly seem fully exploitable this week, thanks to UNLV’s general personnel disadvantages, but if the absences start to stretch, there could be a significant problem in Evanston moving forward.