KENOSHA, Wis.--Starters were as scarce as clouds in sun-drenched Kenosha for Northwestern's intra-squad scrimmage on Saturday.
All but a handful of players from the two-deep appeared in the 1.5-hour simulated game, so the few hundred fans on The Hill got a better sense of, say, the 2015 Wildcats than the team that will take the field in two weeks at Cal.
And that's all by head coach Pat Fitzgerald's design. His goal for all scrimmages is to come out injury-free. As he said earlier in the week, he doesn't really need to see his 15 returning starters play any more. He wanted to find out what his younger charges could do in a game-like atmosphere.
"I thought our young guys got some pretty good reps," he said.
Zack Oliver ran the first-team offense, while freshman Matt Alviti ran the second team. Quarterbacks 1 (Kain Colter) and 1A (Trevor Siemian), running back Venric Mark and the first-team offensive line were all relegated to the sideline.
The same went for the defense, although most of the two-deep Wildcats who played were defensive linemen. DEs Dean Lowry and Ifeadi Odenigbo and DTs Will Hampton and Chance Carter -- all key contributors -- saw significant action.
"We wanted to push that group a little bit from the standpoint that we practiced pretty well, but I believe it's the hardest position to play in football," said Fitzgerald. "We wanted to make it challenging for the guys going into the weekend and I thought they responded really well."
Fitzgerald said that playing the defensive line is so difficult because "not only do you have to take on 300 or 600 pounds of people, but then you have to actually have disengage, run to the ball and try to make a play." Then again, "Maybe I have a soft spot for them in my heart because they made me who I was as a player," he admitted.
Whatever the reason, Fitzgerald said he was happy about their performance, especially Lowry, who sacked Oliver on the first series of the game.
As a result, the defense was usually in control of the action. The running game was largely stalled, save for a few long bursts, and the defense got considerable pressure on quarterbacks and forced a few throwaways with good coverage in the secondary.
Fans hoping to get a glimpse of the future were rewarded by a few tantalizing plays by freshmen.
Alviti, looking to be in command of the offense he is still learning, stepped up in the pocket and fired a bullet to fellow freshman Jayme Taylor on a seam route for 30-plus yards. Just a few plays later, a well thrown ball to Taylor in the end zone was tipped away by freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike at the last moment. He also zipped a long completion over the middle to yet another promising freshman, wide receiver Tom Fuessel.
"I think (Alviti) was great, he didn't turn it over," said Fitzgerald. "I think he's got a bright future."
Rookie running back Warren Long got a chance to showcase his hard, downhill running style, though he also let two kick returns and a pass slip through his fingers. Redshirt freshman linebacker Joseph Jones leaped to knock down an Oliver pass in the backfield and also had a sure pick-6 of Oliver bounce off his chest.
Fitzgerald warned fans not to get too excited by the performance of any of these highly touted freshmen, however.
"If I could have my 100-percent wish list for the season, I'd like to redshirt all of them," he said.
"I know fans get excited about recruiting rankings and hype, but for a freshman to play, in my opinion, and play well -- it's one thing to be out there and cover kicks and take up a gap and take up space, but to be in the positional rotation, to me, is a huge challenge."
Even Igwebuike, who had been singled out by the coach as the freshman most ready to play, would not play if the team had a game today, Fitzgerald said. He said that Igwebuike is "on the flight deck," which is Top Gun-ese for waiting in the wings but not quite ready.
Ironically, the biggest star of the day was likely running back Mike Panico. The unheralded redshirt freshman walkon had two long, impressive runs from scrimmage and found a hole and returned a kickoff for what probably would have been a touchdown if the play hadn't been whistled dead.
That's the whimsical nature of the scrimmage, which can turn a player buried on the depth chart into an MVP, as well as create some strange situations not often seen in other places.
For example, where else do you see a 15-yard penalty for too many coaches on the field, as Fitzgerald made the referees call on the defense at one point? Where else is a touchdown followed by not an extra point but four consecutive Jeff Budzien field-goal attempts? (For the record, Budzien hit them all, including a 51-yarder and a 20-yard chip shot that was tipped at the line of scrimmage but still went through.) And where else do you see the defense and offense celebrating on the same play?
That happened when Long, stacked up but attempting to stretch the ball over the goal line, had the ball slapped away by a defender. C.J. Robbins emerged from the pile and took off down the field with it before getting mobbed by teammates. But while the defense was crowing about the apparent turnover on one end of the field, the offense was celebrating the touchdown that the referee called when the ball, in his eyes, crossed the plane.
Where do you see those kinds of plays? Only in Kenosha.