NU's Fitzgerald rails against run pass option rules

 
 
Updated 9/11/2018 7:39 PM
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  • Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, center, speaks with his team during a break in the play in an NCAA college football game against Duke Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Evanston, Ill.

    Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, center, speaks with his team during a break in the play in an NCAA college football game against Duke Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018, in Evanston, Ill. Associated Press

Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald finished his weekly news conference with an entertaining rant about RPOs.

That stands for run pass option, a type of play that has become popular on all levels of football. The Wildcats use plenty of them and saw quite a few from Duke in Saturday's 21-7 loss.

Fitzgerald's beef is the rise of RPOs has brought the fall of the longtime football tradition of offensive lineman remaining on the line of scrimmage during pass plays.

"RPO is the purest form of communism," Fitzgerald said, perhaps only half-jokingly. "I think it's illegal, to be quite honest with you. When linemen are downfield and you're throwing the ball, I don't quite understand how that's still football, but that's the way the rules are set up today, so that's what you've got to do."

The college rule is linemen can be no more than 3 yards downfield when a pass is thrown. Fitzgerald believes RPO-heavy teams are stretching the rules and he vowed to do the same with the Wildcats' offense.

"I'd like to see them go back to actually making offenses play honest, where if you come downfield at all it's a penalty," he said. "Maybe someday I'll get on the rules committee and get that fixed, but I doubt that will happen. So until then, we're going to take full advantage of the schematic rules allowed to run RPO. But it's not football."

A bigger problem for Northwestern right now is it's sputtering offense, whether the choice is to run, pass or some other option.

After scoring 31 points in the first half of the season-opener at Purdue, the Wildcats have managed just 7 points in the ensuing six quarters.

Against Duke, Northwestern scored its only touchdown on the game's first possession, a 79-yard drive that ended with Jeremy Larkin's 2-yard run. The first possession of the second half netted a first-and-goal at the 9-yard line, but that drive ended with a sack of quarterback Clayton Thorson on fourth down at the 4.

After that, the Wildcats reached midfield or Duke territory on six straight drives and failed to score. NU ended up going 1-for-5 on fourth down in the game.

"I'd do it again. Why, are people hating on me for it?" Fitzgerald asked about the failures on fourth down. "Hindsight's 20-20. If we go 4-for-4, I'm a genius. That's the way it goes. That's what you sign up for."

The loss ended a nine-game winning streak dating to last October. Northwestern will face Akron on Saturday at Ryan Field (6:30 p.m., BTN), then get a week off before hosting Michigan on Sept. 29.

The Wildcats continued to rotate quarterbacks Thorson and T.J. Green. That practice figures to end once doctors feel Thorson is sufficiently recovered from a torn ACL suffered in the Dec. 29 Music City Bowl.

Another problem that may have hampered the offense last week is Northwestern lost both starting offensive tackles, Blake Hance and Rashawn Slater, to injuries during the game. Fitzgerald said both players were active at Tuesday's practice, but are probably questionable to play against Akron.

"Our problem was execution and fundamentals," Fitzgerald said. "Guys are going to go down. It's your job to step up and go play. When your number gets called, you need to be prepared. When you don't go out there and play well, you hurt yourself, you hurt your unit, you hurt the team and that's what happened on Saturday."

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