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What we learned from Northwestern’s 21-7 loss to Wisconsin

Kyle Queiro, Northwestern Wildcats, Corey Clement, Wisconsin Badgers

Northwestern’s offense failed to get itself going in a 21-7 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. The Wildcats are back to the drawing board to get back on top.

Whatever little dream Northwestern had of winning the Big Ten West went up in flames at Ryan Field on Saturday as Wisconsin dominated for a 21-7 win. The Wildcats hung around in the game but ultimately could not make the plays necessary to win.

Northwestern trailed by six when Clayton Thorson took a sack and fumbled it while trying to get the ball and throw it out of bounds. With one of the few times Northwestern was in scoring range, it proved to be killer. And Wisconsin marched down the field and scored to put the game essentially out of reach.

The Badgers halted the Wildcats’ budding confidence on offense and wore down their defense.

The stats tell only part of the story. Northwestern was largely able to hang tough with Wisconsin, bending defensively but never really breaking enough to give up touchdowns and scores. The offense never got going though.

The concern is the Wildcats seemingly reverted some to their poor play at the beginning of the year. The offense was inefficient and overly conservative — afraid even to run the ball against the tough Wisconsin defensive line.

The good news is that Wisconsin is the toughest defensive line Northwestern will see the entire season. Perhaps this was a one-time pump of the breaks. The margin for error for the Wildcats is small but not impossible. They have to win two of their final three games — at Purdue, at Minnesota and vs. Illinois — to reach a bowl game.

Clayton Thorson is still a sophomore

At the beginning of the year, Clayton Thorson seemingly could not make any simple throws. Much less lead the Wildcats to a win, even against seemingly easy opponents.

Then something clicked and Thorson was threading passes to the corners and the sideline and giving Northwestern some much-needed balance. Thorson was earning every bit of his four stars from his recruiting.

The future was now.

And then the past — the ineffective, unconfident quarterback — reared its head against Wisconsin. The blame dos not fall completely on Thorson — his offensive line was not particularly effective either — but Thorson looked like he did his freshman year and the first few weeks of the season.

Thorson was inaccurate and missing his spot. He skipped short passes and stared down receivers — particularly Austin Carr, and it was still surprisingly effective. It looked like Wisconsin’s powerful defense overwhelmed him or he was overthinking to beat them.

Thorson finished 28 for 52 for 277 yards with a touchdown — a gorgeous strike to Carr to finish a two-minute drill. That quarterback was still in there. But the quarterback who looked unflappable in Columbus looked a little small against the Badgers at home.

It was a stark reminder of how young Thorson still is and how much development he has left to go.

Northwestern’s defense can still get dirty

Give Northwestern’s defense a ton of credit for keeping Wisconsin to 21 points and giving its offense a chance throughout the second half.

This was the kind of effort Northwestern has come to expect from its defense. This is what the Wildcats were last year.

They were not completely dominant, but they made big plays when they had to and allowed the offense a chance to come alive.

Time and time again, Northwestern would give up yards, bending close to the snapping point and then get a stop. Sure, it would give the offense bad field position — and Wisconsin punter Anthony Lottie placed to punts perfectly inside the five. But that was at least opportunity for Northwestern.

Wisconsin ended up gaining 333 total yards. It felt like a lot more with the way the Badgers dominated time of possession. And the Wildcats still had an opportunity to win the game.

This is the fundamental tough defense the Wildcats want to be known for. They just have to get off the field and have an offense that can sustain a drive so they can be more adventurous with their pass rush packages (which Northwestern was early in the game with a few zone blitzes where the defensive end dropped back into coverage, a very new look).

Northwestern needs a run game

When Northwestern loses, inevitably it is because the team struggled to get the run game going or failed to include Justin Jackson in the gameplan enough.

The Wildcats have tried to do a better job pacing Jackson and his rushes in previous weeks, but still delivered him or backup John Moten a healthy diet of rushes. Saturday, the Wildcats did neither and became completely one dimensional.

Pat Fitzgerald said this was a big reason why Northwestern struggled offensively. And the Wildcats certainly failed to create running lanes for their backs. But then they went completely away from it.

Thorson threw the ball 52 times and Jackson, Northwestern’s best player, had just 14 touches — 13 carries for 42 yards and one catch for one yard. The Wildcats simply cannot win if they are not getting Jackson involved.

Worse yet, Jackson recorded 28 of those 42 yards on one play — a third down carry during Northwestern’s touchdown drive at the end of the second quarter.

The Wildcats need offensive balance and need a healthy dose of Justin Jackson to win games. With this defense out of the way, Northwestern likely will return to being a run-heavy team.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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