The Northwestern Wildcats have high hopes for the upcoming season. Even the BTN broadcasters were claiming this might very well be the best team in the Pat Fitzgerald era.
To be sure, the Wildcats are talking a big game. They believe they can take those steps to compete for a championship this year. But it all has to start with a single step. Or a single win. A 1-0, if you will.
Not that it was easy. Northwestern had its shaky moments in a 31-20 season-opening win over the Nevada Wolf Pack at Ryan Field on Saturday. The Wildcats trailed 17-7 at halftime and needed to get their ship in order to come from behind and win.
Northwestern scored the go-ahead touchdown with 5:28 to play on fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak from the one-yard line. Northwestern added another score with less than a minute left.
It was an ugly game, for sure. Northwestern made a lot of mistakes, fumbling the ball in the red zone on a catch to Bennet Skowronek, Charlie Kuhbander missing a 21-yard field goal and Clayton Thorson threw an interception backed up against his own end zone. That does not even get into the penalties that harmed the team.
These were all things the team could clean up and recover from. The defense largely did after giving up 231 yards in the first half. The team recovered and got itself back off the mat and into the game. The usual self doubt that Northwestern fans feel never went away until the team took the lead. That is normal, especially following last year’s start.
But the team recovered and went 1-0. The Wildcats got that win. And had plenty to be happy about.
There is still plenty for the team to get concerned about. As the Wildcats prepare for a difficult challenge at Duke this weekend, here are some takeaways from Northwestern’s Week One win.
Clayton Thorson is the real deal
One of the big questions for Northwestern entering the season was just how much could the team trust junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Last year, he seemed to expand his game but it was hard to say how much of that would carry over. He seemed to put in all the work.
And there was the little question about who he would throw to after Austin Carr’s graduation and Solomon Vault’s injury.
Thorson seemed to answer all of those questions in the affirmative Saturday. He threw for 352 yards, completing 28 of 38 passes. He found Macan Wilson and Riley Lees for touchdown passes. He distributed the ball to Justin Jackson out of the backfield and Garrett Dickerson in the slot. He hit Bennet Skowronek for eight catches and 123 yards.
It was a dominant performance from Thorson with few mistakes. He was precise and in control all game long. Thorson had great command in the pocket and made all the throws he needed. His only flaw was occasionally letting the ball sail when he could not set his feet.
But it was a positive sign for Thorson. And hopefully something he can sustain.
Those lines? Yeah…
The big concern for Northwestern was the team’s offensive line. It was a group that struggled throughout last season, giving up the most sacks in the nation. Pat Fitzgerald left almost every position open to competition hoping to find some answer. The Wildcats had two freshmen playing at right tackle — Gunnar Vogel and Rashawn Slater. And there was little answer to any of the concerns.
Justin Jackson rushed 30 times for 109 yards. That sounds like a good game, but comes out to just 3.6 yards per carry. And too often the Wildcats tried to run Jackson through the middle of the line and Jackson found no room to run. His most successful runs came to the outside.
Thorson also faced some pressure, although he looked much improved getting rid of the ball quickly.
But it was clear the offensive line still needed a ton of work. There were multiple instances where a miscommunication in the zone blocking scheme allowed a defender to come unfettered into the backfield. The Wildcats have a lot of work to do to clean this up.
It is just one game. And the first game can be a learning experience. But the Wildcats will have to do better.
The same could be said for the defensive line. Ty Gangi had a lot of time to throw, facing little pressure. Northwestern failed to get a sack and had only three tackles for a loss. Northwestern did not spend much time in the Nevada backfield.
Maybe some of that is Northwestern’s vanilla gameplan. The Wildcats did not blitz very much, opting to hold some schemes back for Big Ten play. That is typical for the Wildcats.
Still, it did not seem like either line got a significant push. The Wolf Pack had plenty of time to let the ball air out and still picked up 142 rushing yards (just 14 fewer than the Wildcats).
Testing their depth
The biggest and most concerning storyline coming out of the game Saturday is just how much the Wildcats’ depth is getting tested. The strong Sky Team saw at least two players go down and officially lost another key player. Losing three players are going to deplete any unit.
The bad news started before the game when Pat Fitzgerald announced Keith Watkins III would miss the entire season with a lower body injury. He was ruled out for the game in the injury report released Thursday, but the injury is obviously quite serious. Watkins missed all of last season too.
Then in the second half, cornerback Marcus McShephard landed awkwardly and left the game. Not too far after that, his backup went down and Northwestern had to throw Moe Almasri into the game. It is OK if you do not know who the walk-on graduate student is.
The Wildcats have to hope McShephard, who struggled some in the game, will be ready to go and that Montre Hartage also will be healthy. Like so much on defense, it felt like Northwestern was keeping some of their cards close to the vest.
But the Wildcats cannot scheme around a lack of depth. Or injuries.
The Wildcats strong secondary has taken a few hits in the first week. And with so many other questions remaining on defense, this has to be a concern.
Northwestern may have won Week One. But the team everyone thought could compete for a Big Ten West title has some very fundamental questions to answer.