Fixing ground game priority for Wildcats

Fitzgerald From Big Ten Media Day (3:20)

Northwestern Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald provides his thoughts on the upcoming season (3:20)

CHICAGO -- Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald is the first to point out that the Wildcats’ running game had as much of a chance to succeed as their passing last season.

If they hadn’t passed the ball 78 times in the Outback Bowl, the Wildcats actually would have run the ball more than thrown it for the season. Instead, Northwestern attempted 531 passes and 503 rushes.

That’s where the similarities end, though.

Northwestern’s passing game was among the nation’s best. It ranked 13th in the country with an average of 286.5 yards per game.

Its running game was among the worst. The Wildcats ranked 89th with an average of 117.8 yards. Their longest run was 25 yards, which was the worst in the country, and they averaged 3.0 yards per carry, which was 111th.

If Northwestern is going to make a push at the top dogs in the conference, Fitzgerald acknowledged Monday during the Big Ten media days that Northwestern’s running game must improve.

“We had good balance when you look at the stats,” Fitzgerald said. “We just have to be run-efficient. If you want to win the championship in this league, you got to be able to run the ball efficiently. You define that by four more on first down, half or more on second down, pick it up on third and fourth and score on the goal. So it’s not really that complicated of an equation. We definitely need to be better there. We put a strong a focus on that in the spring, and we’ll be right back there to start camp.”

One of the more intriguing battles during Northwestern’s fall camp will be at running back. Sophomore Arby Fields is penciled in as the starter after the spring, but there’s no guarantee that it’s his job. Junior Jacob Schmidt, senior Stephen Simmons, junior Scott Concannon, redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy and freshman Adonis Smith will all be given a chance to dethrone Fields.

“If someone emerges and takes it over, it’s their job,” Fitzgerald said. “We haven’t had that happen yet. Everybody’s close to each other. There’s a lot of similarities. If they’re that close, we’re going to rotate.”

Fitzgerald would prefer for someone to emerge.

“I would like to see one of our tailbacks potentially take over the role,” Fitzgerald said. “I remember back when I played Michigan it seemed like every down it was a different back, and they just kept hitting you, hitting you and hitting you.”

Fields believes he can be that guy. Last season as a freshman, he led Northwestern with 302 yards rushing and five touchdowns. This season he believes he can do much more.

“Having gone through this once and having gone through a full season, I feel I’m capable of taking it upon myself to lead this group and be the best running back they want me to be and I want to be,” Fields said last week on campus. “I don’t read the newspapers, but my mom does. Whatever people have to say negative or positive, OK, that’s going to make me work harder. I want to prove people wrong.

“The big picture is my goal is to go to the Rose Bowl because I live in California. It’s going to be a breakout season for the Northwestern running game. I just want to have a big year and want to help Northwestern win a Big Ten championship. If that means I rush for 1,500 yards, I rush for 1,500 yards. If I rush for 600 yards and have 700-800 yards receiving, whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do it. Whatever it takes for us to win. “