Northwestern was on the doorstep of a victory over Ohio State at Ohio Stadium. They came up short but showed a ton of resolve in the process.
Northwestern was literally on the doorstep of history.
The Wildcats had not gone to Ohio Stadium to defeat the Buckeyes since 1971. They have only one other win over the Buckeyes since that time anyway. And the scars of that GameDay-centric defeat from 2013 still ring the program.
Northwestern is still trying to fight those ghosts and reach that height of consistency and possibility.
Pat Fitzgerald spent his weeklong run up joking about how he has never been a recruiting battle against Ohio State and if he were, he clearly lost. This seemed like a lopsided fight.
Behind the scenes, Fitzgerald was calling this a heavyweight fight. And it turned into one where Northwestern stood toe to toe with No. 6 Ohio State.
The Wildcats did come up short. The Buckeyes offense woke up long enough to overpower the Wildcats on a long drive for the final score. Northwestern answered back and faced third and goal before penalties forced them to a field goal. They never saw the ball again.
In the process though, Northwestern stood tall. They went 15 rounds with the conference’s heavyweight and at least forced the judges to make a decision. The four-point deficit was the closest loss for Northwestern at the Horseshoe since that win in 1971 — they did lose by nine points in 1979.
Not that it is any consolation.
The Wildcats have seemingly rescued their season in many ways. They still sit at 4-4 — which Fitzgerald would tell the media afterward means they are an average football team. But the Wildcats seem to be much more. Heading into the second half of their conference season, they are still in the hunt for a B1G West title and brimming with confidence.
Here is what we learned Saturday:
Northwestern’s offense is legitimate
I hit on a lot about Clayton Thorson’s maturation after the game Saturday. It bears some repeating as he threw for 256 yards on 22-for-42 passing. All with Justin Jackson not eclipsing 100 yards (or 20 carries).
The Wildcats found a lot of success moving the ball against a strong and talented Buckeyes defense. And they largely protected Thorson, who was sacked just once. He showed great pocket presence to move around the pressure and step up or take off when the gates opened. Thorson is still smart getting rid of the ball when he is flushed out of the pocket too.
What was more impressive was the length of Northwestern’s scoring drives.
At one point during the ESPN broadcast, Tom Luginbill demonstrated how far 85 yards looks (compared to 75) in an odd display of television. The Wildcats scored on that drive to tie the game. Northwestern had three drives of 75 yards or more and all four of their scoring drives were at least 60 yards or more.
That is the sign of a confident and strong offense. Northwestern was able to move the ball down the field and control possession. Considering how much of a problem that was at the beginning of the year, it is quite the transformation for the team.
Pat Fitzgerald’s conservative nature still can hamper
Pat Fitzgerald is a conservative coach. The moments where he gets aggressive are notable for their rarity. It is seen in the gameplan where he has tried to turn the team into a tradition Big Ten running team without perhaps the offensive line strength to do so. His clock management and in-game decisions often come under fire.
When Fitzgerald and his Northwestern teams are at their best is when they push the tempo, get into rhythm and play without smart abandon — no turnovers and the like.
Fitzgerald was plenty aggressive with his gameplan Saturday. Northwestern’s offense continued the perimeter play and there is plenty of growing trust in Thorson to run the offense. This team is suddenly successful again.
The Wildcats went 2 for 2 on fourth downs and 8 for 16 on third downs. Northwestern’s play calling throughout much of the game was aggressive on offense and got the Wildcats moving. It added to the swagger that would be necessary to win this game.
Late in the game, some of Fitzgerald’s bad tendencies showed through.
Facing first and goal, Fitzgerald ran a run up the middle that went nowhere. He then made a great call on a jet sweep wide receiver pass that fell incomplete. On third down though, he ran up the middle again. The Wildcats were called for a flag. And a throw to the end zone incomplete later, he opted to kick a field goal and turn things over to his defense.
Northwestern never saw the ball again.
Fitzgerald showed plenty of aggression throughout the game. But this big of mismanagement — followed by holding onto his timeouts too long as Ohio State converted two third downs to ice the game away — cost the offense a chance to turn around and win.
And then there was the defensive line. . .
Pressure is the key to success
Through much of the first half of the game, Northwestern seemed relatively content to keep everything in front of them and commit as many players as possible to zone coverage. The Wildcats relied largely on a four-man front to get pressure.
J.T. Barrett had all day to throw and, early on, he picked Northwestern apart. Barrett ended the day with 223 yards on 21-for-32 passing.
Part of that gameplan was certainly to protect Northwestern’s depleted secondary. If Ohio State got big plays throughout the game, it was because of missed or broken tackles rather than heaves downfield. That was part of the Cats gameplan for sure.
But Ohio State scored against it. The Wildcats did not really pick up their pace defensively until they got more pressure, whether it was the front four or Godwin Igwebuike flying into the backfield to stop the run.
Northwestern’s best defensive success comes when they get pressure. They have largely been able to do that with a four-man rush. Ohio State though controlled Ifeadi Odenigbo for the most part and gave Barrett time to throw.
The Wildcats will have to continue to find ways to create pressure to support their secondary. Of course, that also leaves them more on an island. This balance will dictate Northwestern’s defense throughout the rest of the season.