EVANSTON, Illinois — There were shades of Isaiah Bowser’s arrival in true freshman Cam Porter’s 24-carry, 142-yard and two-touchdown performance in Northwestern’s (6-1) stomping of Illinois (2-5) on Saturday.
The scenarios are fairly similar. Before Bowser burst onto the scene at Rutgers with 24 carries, 108 yards and two touchdowns, Northwestern had more trouble on the ground than it has had in 2020. In the three games leading up to the matchup with the Scarlet Knights, NU had gained a paltry 68 yards on 77 total attempts. The now-junior went on to rack up 864 yards and six scores in eight starts.
Heading into Saturday’s affair, the Wildcats knew they needed to run the ball more effectively after rushing a combined 100 times for 167 yards against Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan State. They accomplished that and then some, flattening the Illini for 411 yards on the ground, the most in a game since they ran for 444 yards against Illinois in 2003.
“They all want to carry the ball and they all want to play and I get it and I understand it,” said head coach Pat Fitzgerald. “But it’s a production business and two guys really, obviously, Evan Hull and Cam Porter played outstanding football today, and I’m really proud of those two young guys.”
Porter said he knew heading into the game he’d get some touches but wasn’t sure how many. Starting running back Drake Anderson’s day was short. After the sophomore coughed up the ball on Northwestern’s first offensive play from scrimmage, he didn’t leave the bench. The next Wildcat running back to carry the ball was the true freshman.
With NU scoreless toward the end of the first quarter and having managed just 40 total yards, Porter jumpstarted the offense. He rushed three times for 40 yards, including a 31-yard scamper on third-and-short to get the ‘Cats into Illinois territory on their march to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
If the game was still in doubt when the Wildcats led 7-3 with 7:26 left in the first half, Porter put any of those doubts to sleep on the next two drives. He got the hard yards, rushing nine times for 28 yards and a touchdown on a single drive of 7:02 as NU went 64 yards to find the end zone and make things 14-3 before halftime.
Offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian leaned on him again early in the third quarter as seven of the nine plays on the opening drive of the second half were Porter rushes. He scored again on an 18-yard scamper to put the game out of reach at 21-3.
The wheels for Porter to expand his role in the backfield have been in motion for a while. Before Saturday, he’d gotten just 10 total touches (eight rushes, two catches) over four games for 44 all-purpose yards, but the coaches were getting him ready in practice. In comparison, he took 10 snaps out of the wildcat formation on Saturday alone.
Porter said he played a little wildcat quarterback in high school and had been practicing it for three to four weeks before playing Michigan State, when he scored his first career touchdown.
“I think having some success in the wildcat in the Michigan State game gave coach Bajakian some confidence,” Porter said.
It’s late in this shortened season, but Northwestern has yet to find a consistent leader or tandem in the backfield. Bajakian has tried several personnel combinations and ways to move the ball on the ground, but few had worked until Saturday. The top two backs on the depth chart haven’t produced. Junior Isaiah Bowser (3.0 yards per carry) simply hasn’t looked the same since he broke out as a freshman, while sophomore Drake Anderson’s (4.1 YPC) flashes of explosiveness seem spread out. Sophomore Evan Hull is listed with Anderson on the second team and had an impressive half of his own against the Illini but logged just 10 rushes coming into the game.
“We have open competition at every position every week,” said Fitz. “If you make it close, we’re gonna try to play a lot of guys and rotate guys. If you solidify your job and play at an All-Big Ten level and play consistently, you’re typically going to earn that role, and you’re going to be in there probably the majority of the reps.”
It’s tough to say if Porter played at an all-conference level against an Illinois run defense that ranks 13th in the Big Ten giving up 227 yards per game, but the performance was impressive nonetheless. He followed his blocks and wasn’t afraid to run downhill while showcasing a physical style and a penchant for falling forward.
Like this entire season, the Northwestern offensive backfield is fluid. Porter’s 142 rushing yards, however, were the ninth-most in a game by a first year in program history and trail only Evan Hull’s 149 yards from Saturday for the most by a Wildcat running back in a game this year. Fitz has shown the willingness to ride the hot hand before, most recently with Bowser two years ago.
Porter will have more than just rushing to think about against an explosive Ohio State front seven in the Big Ten Championship Game, but based on the dynamic nature of the position group, it would not be surprising to see him get a significant number of carries in Indianapolis. He says he’s ready for it.
“Thanks to them [the coaches] again for believing in me and trusting me,” said Porter. “I know it’s not common for a true freshman to get a lot of carries. I’m thankful for it all and I’m ready to keep rolling.