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Cat, not hog, mollies: How Northwestern must rely upon its offensive line in 2021

The Wildcats’ defense may garner headlines, but their OL is just as important.

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Around college football, several conferences are renowned for certain play styles. In the Big 12, fast-paced, explosive offenses reign supreme. In the SEC, NFL talent abounds amid fanbases with storied heritages. In the Big Ten, hard-nosed, gritty football features chilly temperatures and snowfall as its backdrop.

Although some may view the B1G as more defense-driven — after all, three defenders picked in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft were from the Big Ten — a key component to its toughness is line play. The ability to win a painstaking battle in the trenches, gain even a few extra inches through brute force and pushing the pile is what often separates the tiers of teams suiting up in the midwest.

As with any squad, the quality of Northwestern’s offensive line will play a considerable role in its season — and intended success. But I’d go so far as to venture that Pat Fitzgerald and his staff will not be able to reach their Lucas Oil Stadium-sized aspirations without superb OL play.

August 17, 2021, is a day that will presumably live in infamy for ‘Cats fans, as news broke regarding arguably the two most imperative positions on NU’s offense: quarterback and running back. Those embracing their Purple Pride were stunned to learn that Hunter Johnson had been named QB1 and that RB Cam Porter was out for the year, but just imagine how much pressure and angst now resides in the members of Northwestern’s offensive line.

With a quarterback facing his own quandaries and a running back-by-committee approach lined up to begin the year, Fitzgerald’s group must step up to protect Johnson and clear lanes for the likes of Evan Hull, Andrew Clair and Anthony Tyus III. The good news is that they’re more than capable of doing so.

Without question, the catalyst of Northwestern’s offensive line is left tackle Peter Skoronski. As a true freshman — an identifier that few can hail in the world of modern football — Skoronski started every contest in place of star tackle Rashawn Slater. Skoronski didn’t just hold his ground, he guarded it like a military base en route to being named to the All-Big Ten Second Team.

Thanks to his stellar play, Skoronski drew the ogles of scouts around the country and appears poised to be one of the best offensive linemen in the nation in 2021. However, the local product is far from the only standout O-lineman that the ‘Cats possess.

Two gaps to the right of Skoronski sits center Sam Gerak. Gerak, who was voted a team captain for this forthcoming year, has started every game for NU since 2019. It’s worth noting that Gerak isn’t just a leader off the field and in the locker room. The senior was also named to the Rimington Award Watch List, a prize granted to the premier center in college football.

Alongside Skoronski and Gerak, Northwestern boasts a combination of experienced players to round out its offensive line. Entering Friday’s clash with Michigan State, Pat Fitzgerald has listed sophomore Josh Priebe (left guard), junior Charlie Schmidt (right guard) and senior Charlie Wiederkehr (right tackle) as his first-tier offensive linemen.

A focal point of this NU team is its collective lack of time spent on the field. However, that concept isn’t true with the offensive line.

Altogether, the combination of Skoronski-Priebe-Gerak-Schmidt-Wiederkehr started in a combined 27 games last season, as only Priebe never took the field on an inaugural Wildcat possession. Even then, Priebe suited up in eight of nine games, which ties him for the fewest games played among NU’s OL.

Without a doubt, some of Northwestern’s position groups — namely running back, wide receiver and linebacker — will likely take some time to gel and develop camaraderie. But one area of definite chemistry is along the offensive line, even without Gunnar Vogel and Nik Urban.

A year ago, the ‘Cats leveraged their offensive line to the tune of 162.8 rushing yards per game, good for 65th among FBS teams. At the same time, there are certain elements of OL play that can and likely should be improved upon to catalyze Northwestern’s success this season.

Around all levels of football, there’s a stigma that offensive linemen can’t have their play quantified as readily as other positions. There’s no widespread equivalent of passing touchdowns or sacks for O-linemen. Yet one way that I love analyzing teams’ play in the trenches is through Football Outsiders, which accumulates statistics for both NFL and collegiate offensive lines (though access to these metrics requires a paid subscription).

Per Football Outsiders, Northwestern’s offensive line was among the worst last year in Line Yards per Carry (120th), Standard Downs Line Yards per Carry (119th), Opportunity Rate (118th), Power Success Rate (96th) and Stuff Rate (106th). In layman’s terms, the ‘Cats struggled to control the line of scrimmage as well as help runners get the yardage they were “supposed” to.

One trait that Hull has flashed in limited action is the ability to break tackles, simply bowling over defenders — his game against Illinois last year was chock full of such plays. Even if Hull and others post Herculean efforts, it will quickly grow trying to gain yardage when being swarmed in the backfield. Skoronski and others must ensure that doesn’t happen, particularly on third-and-short.

While the numbers don’t stray in the Wildcats’ favor regarding rushing downs and plays, the trends become more positive when discussing passing situations. Fitzgerald’s unit ranked 68th in Passing Downs Line Yards per Carry as well as 29th with a 4.5% Sack Rate. In fact, the ‘Cats jump all the way up to 9th in the country in terms of Passing Downs Sack Rate.

What does this imply? Northwestern’s offensive line shone when defenses would expect a pass — e.g., on third-and-long — as well as with keeping Peyton Ramsey upright.

Since taking over as offensive line coach in 2019, Kurt Anderson has played a large role in developing players such as Slater and Skoronski, even guiding them to stardom. If Anderson is able to focus upon the dichotomy between rushing and passing situations, then the Wildcats’ offensive line could become a true force.

With kickoff just two days away, Pat Fitzgerald and Northwestern have an opportunity to write their own destiny like never before. As uncertainties abound, one thing is for sure — the Wildcats’ offensive linchpin must be its battle-tested offensive line.