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Balance proved key to Northwestern’s offensive outburst

They made putting up 40 points look pedestrian.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern punted just three times in its 43-3 rout of Maryland, and two of those punts came on their final three series when the game was never in doubt. Its offense was so dominant that it came away with points on seven of its first eight drives, and the Wildcats could have put up more than 50 if they wanted.

From its first few snaps, the NU offense looked in sync and in command of what it wanted to do. Facing third-and-10 on their opening drive, Ramsey connected with Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman for 11 yards, which greased the wheels. The Wildcats would face just one more third down on the drive, and they methodically dissected the Terrapin defense in 14 plays and 4:20 to find the end zone.

“That first third down conversion was really important in the game,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “Maryland had a good first drive offensively, good job by them. I thought our offense being able to sustain a drive the way they did allowed us to get a lot of confidence as a team.”

NU did anything it pleased for the rest of the night, as evidenced by its scoring 30 points in the first half alone. What stuck out was how balanced the offense was. Ramsey was happy to take some easy, short throws to set up manageable second and third down situations, and then he hit the intermediate chunk plays. Of the Wildcats’ nine third-down plays in the first half, they faced longer than six yards to go only thrice. Everything ran on time.

During preseason camp, new offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian stressed the power run game as well as getting the ball in the hands of playmakers. Saturday night, this revamped scheme showed that almost anyone can be a playmaker.

Their new graduate transfer quarterback completed six passes of 15 or more yards, which accounted for 104 total yards, roughly half of his 212 total. He spread the ball around to seven different pass catchers on the night, his favorite targets being graduate transfer tight end John Raine and RCB.

“Establishing run with Isaiah and Drake was big,” Ramsey said. “You saw John Raine, Kyric, ‘Maud, you just saw everybody getting involved. When you have that many different weapons, so many guys with the ability to make plays, it makes you hard to defend. That’s a credit to those guys on the outside.”

Even if only a game, it was a marked difference from last year, when Riley Lees led all receivers with 51 receptions, while the next closest wideout, RCB, caught just 17 balls. The same offense that logged just 27 plays of 20 or more yards all of 2019 — nine of which came in two games against UMass and Illinois — hit seven plays of 15 or more yards in just the first half.

Taking out the second half, which was entirely run-heavy garbage time, the stats paint an even clearer picture of the equilibrium that was the NU attack. The ‘Cats rushed 27 times for 158 yards and attempted 23 passes for 178 yards, a remarkably even game plan.

“He had a sound mindset on what he wanted to do offensively,” Fitzgerald said of his new offensive play caller. “His philosophy is to get the ball into our playmaker’s hands in advantageous situations offensively. He’s very calm with the headphones, had great conversation from a dialogue standpoint with the entire offensive staff. You would have thought that this was their 70th or 100th game together.”

Northwestern moved with the patented Bajakian tempo, but that didn’t mean it was always in a hurry. The Wildcats put together five touchdown drives of 55 or more yards in a variety of fashions. Their second scoring drive featured five plays in 1:58, while they ran a whopping 17 plays and took 8:31 off the clock to open the second half with seven points.

That of course would be impossible to do without a reliable and explosive ground game. Against a weak Maryland front seven, the offensive line created holes for Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson, and the stable of rushers averaged a healthy 6.1 yards per carry.

Three different backs ripped off runs of 20 or more yards, and two went for touchdowns. Even in the second half, when Maryland knew all Northwestern was going to do was run it, the Wildcats still averaged 6.4 yards per attempt.

It would be foolish to read into this Week 1 matchup against a poor Maryland defense and expect 40-point outings to become the norm for NU. But they did it so nonchalantly, and after the Wildcats’ largest margin of victory in a Big Ten game since 1970 and their highest point total in a conference in four years, they’re finally sharing the wealth and tapping the potential of their skill players.