"Obviously, the offense starts with the O-line," Jack Konopka said after practice Wednesday. "If we don't do our job, the quarterback can't get the ball out, the wide receivers can't run their routes. We can help everybody."
In the team's three losses, the running game has been anemic, while Northwestern quarterbacks have been sacked 15 times. The ‘Cats allowed just 16 sacks all of last season. Perhaps a lack of timing up front has been the main reason for things sputtering out of control.
It may get easier going forward. Ohio State and Wisconsin boast two of the best front sevens in college football, while Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman has first-round NFL potential.
Though Iowa cracks the top 25 in both run defense and total defense, the Hawkeyes lack playmakers on the defensive line, and rank 79th in the country in sacks with just 10 in six games. A Northwestern line desperately needing confidence can use Saturday as an important first step.
"I wouldn't say we're doing anything different this week, it's not like we're scrapping the whole plan and starting over," Konopka said. "We're trying to do what we do and do it better. Obviously it hasn't been good enough the past couple Saturdays."
Konopka added he hasn't played nearly as well as he wants to on a personal level, but is attempting to find one mistake per week on film and correct it in practice. This week's focus is his hands. Against the Golden Gophers, Konopka let his hands stray outside a defender's frame. He told PurpleWildcats.com that he's making conscious efforts to keep his hands inside and his technique sound at Iowa.
Not all of the sacks, however, fall on Northwestern's O-line. The running backs have struggled to pick up the blitz, and Dan Vitale has slumped after a strong September. Most significantly, reads need to be made quicker in the passing game.
"We've got to get the ball out of our quarterbacks' hands," Pat Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald added that the offense has been "pretty close to puke" in the past few weeks, and a coach always advocating fundamental football looks to the offensive line to get things settled first.
"We're not going to quit, regardless of what happens out there. We're going to keep our chin up and keep slugging," Konopka said. "We've had one-man breakdowns, two-man breakdowns, but the whole line has to improve across the board.
"If we clean things up, there's still a chance that we're a pretty good football team."