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Northwestern offensive line earns honors
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/2/2008 12:04 AM

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Left tackle Al Netter had never played a snap in a college game. Same for center Ben Burkett, the other redshirt freshman on Northwestern's line.

Senior left guard Keegan Kennedy owned some experience before the Wildcats' opener against Syracuse on Saturday, but none on offense and none in a starting role.

In short, NU's offensive line had every right to be inconsistent and mistake-prone against the Orange.

Instead, it wound up earning the team's Offensive Player of the Game award upon videotape review of the 30-10 win.

Senior right guard Joel Belding, who made his 23rd career start, and junior right tackle Desmond Taylor, who made his third career start in the place of injured incumbent Kurt Mattes, rounded out the big five honorees.

Senior running back Tyrell Sutton, who hadn't rushed for so many yards (144) since Nov. 4, 2006 against Iowa, endorsed the award.

"A lot of people weren't giving them their credit for what they've done in the spring and summer," Sutton said. "They went out and played as if they'd been here 2-3 years playing together. They jelled really well for everyone playing their first time."

Kennedy, at least, wouldn't have been a part of this if he hadn't sought out coach Pat Fitzgerald late last season.

After playing a grand total of 19 snaps as a backup defensive end his junior year, the extroverted 6-foot-2, 290-pound Florida native didn't see any change in his status on a defensive line that brought all four starters back.

"I just wanted to contribute to the Wildcats," Kennedy said. "So I went to Coach Fitz and I was like, 'I'll do anything. I just want to see the field more. I'll hold kicks, play superback, whatever.' "

Kennedy found several defensive techniques - play low with leverage, be aggressive - converted nicely to being a run blocker.

He's still honing his pass-protection skills, but he and his mates must be doing something right. Syracuse's only sack came when C.J. Bacher scrambled out of bounds 1 yard shy of the line of scrimmage.

Demos' day: The Big Ten recognized sophomore punter Stefan Demos as the league's special teams player of the week.

Demos didn't have a great average on his 6 punts (32.0), but he dropped all 6 of them inside the 20-yard line. Three, in fact, forced Syracuse to start inside the 10.

Oddly, Demos didn't even win his team's special teams honor. That went to backup running back Stephen Simmons, who returned 2 kicks for 63 yards and made 2 tackles on kick coverage.

Gill returns: Senior defensive tackle John Gill didn't play against Syracuse, but his suspension for violating team rules is over.

Gill, the Wildcats' lone player on the Nagurski Award's preseason watch list, got his money's worth last week playing on the scout team as he did more than a passable imitation of Syracuse all-Big East nose tackle Arthur Jones.

"He was our practice player of the week on defense," Fitzgerald said with a chuckle. "If you would have asked (center) Ben Burkett what he thought of John Gill's play in practice, he'd say he was glad he didn't play against him (in the game).

"He was like a man possessed in practice. He's hungry to play. I'm excited to get him back in the mix."

Hurricane Hanna watch: While the nation focused on Hurricane Gustav's move to shore Monday, Northwestern's football office tracked Hurricane Hanna just as urgently. Forecasters envision Hanna reaching North Carolina on Friday night, which figures to affect the Wildcats' travel plans as well as the weather conditions during their 6 p.m. game at Duke on Saturday.