Oct. 14, 2000
The recent success of the Northwestern football team is surprising fans and critics all over the country, but the Wildcats themselves expect nothing less.
The team knew they would be a force in the Big Ten this season as early as last spring when Head Coach Randy Walker introduced his plans for a new offense.
Lacking experienced fullbacks and tight ends, Walker opted to spread the offense out, giving returning quarterback Zak Kustok more options and taking some pressure off of starting running back Damien Anderson.
"I feel like the offense was made for me," Kustok said. "Now I'm able to run with the ball, to drop back and pass, or roll out and pass. We can do a little of everything. It keeps defenses on guard."
Kustok has worked hard on and off the field to ensure he is able to run the new offense successfully.
"Zak was really committed to learn the way we want him to pass that ball," said Walker. "Good football players don't just show up for practice. He put in a lot of hours on his own to be a good quarterback."
Walker's offense fits Kustok's style of play perfectly, as seen against Michigan State when Kustok threw for 160 yards and rushed for 42 more, and at Wisconsin where he had 278 passing yards and 76 rushing.
The new attack allows more players to get their hands on the ball, and this year Northwestern has more players who can handle it.
With several healthy, talented wide receivers, defenses can't just assume the ball is going to Anderson every down as they did last fall.
"Last year the defense was able to sit eight guys on the line of scrimmage," Kustok explained. "They were able to load up and stop the run. This year we're spreading them out."
This, combined with a strong offensive line, opens up more holes for Anderson, who established a new career-high with 292 rushing yards against Indiana. Anderson has also already scored six more touchdowns than he did in his first two seasons combined.
"There's not another back in the country or in the Big Ten that I'd rather have lining up next to me than Damien Anderson," said Kustok, who has known him since high school. "He's a hard worker--a leader-- and I think we just work real well together."
Second-string running back Kevin Lawrence agrees. "Damien has a good work ethic," Lawrence said. "He's the person you look up to to see how hard you have to work."
Luckily for Anderson, the offense doesn't miss a beat when he needs a breather and Lawrence enters the game. Lawrence's improvement since last season has earned him more playing time, and he added 80 rushing yards himself against Michigan State.
"I feel like when he's in there, there is no letdown," said Anderson. "He's just as productive. He makes plays, he makes things happen."
Kustok's replacement, redshirt freshman Matt Danielson, is just as qualified off the sideline. Kustok admires Danielson's strong arm and confidence on the field. "He's real loose when he's out there and he doesn't get uptight."
So with Kustok and Anderson leading the offense, and capable, young backups in Lawrence and Danielson, Northwestern shows no signs of letting up.
In fact, when asked about his goals for the season, Kustok answers, "If you don't go into the season thinking you're going to win the Big Ten championship, there's no way you're going to be successful."
The Wildcats have been positive about this season since those spring practices, when the new offense showed its potential by dominating the defense for the first time. According to Anderson, this domination proved to the Wildcats' that they had scoring ability because the defense had already demonstrated its strength.
"We've got the best linebacker core in the nation," he said. "Great defensive lineman all the way to the secondary. When we were successful running the ball and passing the ball on them, I knew we'd have success in the Big Ten."
So don't be surprised as Kustok and Anderson continue to lead the team past their Big Ten rivals. They won't be. This is what they, and the rest of the Wildcats, have expected from the beginning.