He may have started the week as effectively the third running back behind an injured Isaiah Bowser and Jesse Brown, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the confidence Drake Anderson displayed on the field against UNLV.
The redshirt first-year, despite not becoming the feature back until the second half, finished with 26 carries for 141 yards and a touchdown to lead Northwestern (1-1) to a 30-14 win over UNLV (1-2).
“Jeremy Larkin always says to prepare like the number one,” Anderson told the media after his breakout performance.
The shifty back, who broke out a pink blazer for the press conference after his big day, certainly seemed to take those words from Larkin to heart.
Drake Anderson is certainly ready for this press conference pic.twitter.com/yQYlGGrnZH— Inside NU (@insidenu) September 14, 2019
“Drake had a great offseason,” his head coach remarked. “He was really close to being in the mix last year... He had a couple of tough plays against Stanford. I thought he responded really well today... He’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
Anderson certainly took advantage of the opportunity he was given on Saturday. Though he didn’t rip off any big runs, the son of former Northwestern legend Damien Anderson showed off his ability to make attackers miss on nearly every play in which he got the ball. His longest carry on the day was just 13 yards, allowing him to showcase a measure of consistency alongside his evident panache.
Nowhere were the two more closely intertwined than on his first career touchdown, as he showcased his patience by allowing the offensive line’s blocks to develop in front of him before slipping through an arm tackle and strolling into the end zone:
| Put a ‼️ on the dub. @Drake_Anderson2 capped a 141-yard day with his first career touchdown. #B1GCats x #GoCats pic.twitter.com/FhkKAE4NhT— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) September 15, 2019
The youngster, wise beyond his years, gave full credit to “NWO” (the Kurt Anderson-influenced nickname the team seems to have given the offensive line) and Kyric McGowan for setting him up on the play after the game. But his running ability was evident enough from the impressive performance for at least one prominent Wildcat alum to notice:
Good win @NUFBFamily. Fun to watch my lil bro Drake go crazy, @FisherPaddy @traviswhillock holding down the defense. Proud of you boys #GoCats— Justin Jackson (@J_ManPrime21) September 14, 2019
While Anderson’s style certainly resembles that of Jackson’s, with both earning an “undersized” label and having to use plenty of finesse to get the job done, there maybe another former Northwestern running back to whom it would be easier to compare the newcomer.
The Andersons celebrate after a banner day: pic.twitter.com/90VGzahTu5— Inside NU (@insidenu) September 14, 2019
It was about 18 years ago that Drake’s father had an almost equally impressive performance against the UNLV Rebels. Damien Anderson (pictured above with his wife) finished with a stat line of 113 yards on 28 carries in Northwestern’s 2001 win over the Rebels.
With a pair of role models like Damien, a former pro, and JJTBC, a current one, the sky is the limit for the Chandler, Arizona native. Even as his role in the offense diminishes with the (hopefully) looming returns of Bowser and Brown, Anderson’s showing against UNLV should earn him plenty of chances down the road despite Northwestern’s depth at running back.
Further showcasing the newfound depth at the position group, Jesse Brown, who finished with 79 yards on just nine touches after his aforementioned injury, showed plenty of explosion during his chances in the backfield. The oft-overlooked junior displayed a surplus of patience and effectiveness in his own right, proving that he can be more than just a third-down back.
When asked about Brown’s day, Fitz touted the injury-prone back’s gritty qualities. “Jesse has overcome a ton of adversity. A tough, physical guy, always plays with square shoulder pads. A guy waiting for his opportunity and took full advantage of it.”
Jesse Brown of @NUFBFamily has NO time for your one-handed tackle attempt. pic.twitter.com/nCDuQgb1f9— Northwestern On BTN (@NUOnBTN) September 14, 2019
The run game’s electricity against UNLV can also be credited in large part to the tireless work of the offensive line. The big guys up front not only protected Hunter Johnson well, but gave the running backs plenty of time and space to create the big plays that ended up putting the game away.
In the passing game, Johnson started to look like the five-star that fans were promised. Despite a few poor decisions, one resulting in an interception, he looked calm and composed in the pocket. The Clemson transfer was able to both make the important throws down the stretch and scramble when the receivers weren’t giving him anything.
His deep ball looked gorgeous: without some tough drops, Johnson could have easily tallied three touchdowns, over 200 yards passing, and a solid completion percentage to boot. Meanwhile, the designed quarterback run game and its interplay with the rest of the rushing offense is looking better than it has since the days of Kain Colter. Good signs all around.
Johnson ➡️ Jefferson@NUFBFamily extends the lead on Hunter Johnson's first TD pass. pic.twitter.com/Xr4kELfBno— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) September 14, 2019
Johnson credited the play calling and the support he received from his teammates for his success down the stretch. “Connecting on that play with JJ was a big play for the offense. A great route for JJ and a great play call....It was just a slant and go, we read the coverage.”
But for Johnson and the rest of the offense, an entirely different challenge awaits. Any success against UNLV can pretty much be thrown out the window as Big Ten play and a date with one of the top rushing defenses in the country in Michigan State looms. To get past the Spartans, the Wildcats will need to have as many of their weapons as possible executing at a high level.
NU’s in-game improvement against UNLV, and the general dominance they displayed up front, certainly serves as a good start. The true test will come when the offense has to apply the lessons they learned on Saturday to a pissed-off Spartans defense. But if we learned anything from Johnson’s deep shots and Anderson’s confidence, it’s that the Wildcats will embrace the challenge.