The Northwestern Wildcats had their game against the Wisconsin Badgers circled all summer. They knew this was the game they would need to get if they wanted to be considered contenders for the Big Ten West. It was that kind of a showdown game.
The Wildcats played that way for the most part. The defense stepped up to the plate for the most part, getting stops and finding themselves in the backfield, creating consistent pressure. The secondary had some holes, but largely made plays.
Northwestern kept themselves in the game thanks to first-half turnovers. The offense certainly could not hold its own.
The offensive line problems became even more exposed as the team gave up eight sacks, none more critical than a safety late in the game with Northwestern trailing by seven points. The comeback where Northwestern scored twice in the final five minutes was about as dynamic as the offense had looked all game. Clayton Thorson was able to dart passes into tight windows and lead the team back into the game.
It was all short lived. Northwestern proved itself worthy to stand up to Wisconsin for a half. The Badgers dominance in this game was closer to the 31-14 lead the team had after a Nathan Jamerson interception return for a touchdown. That pick was built on the back of a defense getting constant pressure and a Northwestern offensive line that could not stop them, or create blocking room for the Wildcats’ running backs.
Never mind that Justin Jackson was hurt and clearly looked it. Albeit he would not have had much room to run even if he was healthy.
The same problems that dogged Northwestern through the non-conference season seemed to spring up again for the Wildcats in Madison. Wisconsin is certainly the best team Northwestern has seen so far (just like Penn State will be this week). The Wildcats seemed up to the challenge. Only as far as they could go.
The Wildcats have several pieces they need to pick up now after their loss Saturday. The coaches seem to recognize it too. It feels like a broken record though. And those Big Ten West Division title dreams have very much faded.
Run Game Required
Balance is a somewhat mythical goal for any football team. Every coach says they want balance, but a perfect balance is rarely achieved. And the score often dictates how much a team can rely on the run.
Establishing a solid run game, or having the ability to create running plays, though says something about the team’s ability on the offensive line. It says something about how the team is able to dominate the line and eventually protect the quarterback.
The Wildcats have Justin Jackson, injury or not, and a growing back in freshman Jeremy Larkin, who looked good in Saturday’s game, but neither had much room to run or get into open field. The offensive line is struggling in several areas, not just in pass protection.
In all, the Wildcats rushed for 25 total yards. Jackson rushed for 25 yards on nine carries and Larkin rushed for 37 yards on seven carries. No matter how anyone breaks it down, that
No matter how anyone breaks it down, that is simply not enough carries for such an important part of Northwestern’s offense. Clayton Thorson is a capable passer, but the team has always struggled when they rely on him too much. Northwestern is 1-5 in games where Thorson throws more than 40 times in a game.
That is what happened Saturday. And when the Wildcats become one-dimensional, they become very easy to defend. Or easier to defend. Especially with teams able to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. And with a porous offensive line, that means trouble for Thorson and the Wildcats offense.
Finding a way to get Jackson and Larkin in space and keep the defensive line off balance will be critical to Northwestern’s offensive development.
The defense indeed became more complex
Throughout the non-conference season, everyone complained about how vanilla Northwestern’s offense looked. It looked like the team was holding back some of its strategy and blitz packages and relying heavily on the front four to create pressure.
That appeared to change at Camp Randall Stadium. Northwestern became a much more dynamic and stronger defensive team. The Wildcats relied on that defense to keep them in the game.
Northwestern gave up only 24 points to the offense (a safety and pick six make up the final nine points) and gave up just 306 total yards to a strong Wisconsin offense. The usually efficient Alex Hornibrook threw for 197 yards and had two interceptions. Northwestern was able to get after him and force him into some bad throws. Freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor rushed for only 80 yards on 19 carries.
The Wildcats totaled two sacks in the game and got a lot of pressure in the game. It was far from a dominant defensive performance, but it was a solid Northwestern defensive performance.
If the Wildcats can stay on the field offensively and give the defense some rest, they should be able to hold their own. Especially once the schedule lightens up after this week.
Offensive Line still the main story
The main story for this Northwestern team remains the offensive line. It is a broken record and something everyone has monitored all season long. Pat Fitzgerald addressed it directly after the game. He called some of the play embarrassing.
This is going to continue until the team shapes up.
At a certain point, Northwestern has to find a way to scheme around this weakness. The team has to try to roll the pocket, use more speed options to the perimeter or tosses to break up the logjam in the interior of the offensive line. Northwestern has to find a way to create balance.
At the end of the day, Northwestern needs to win some of these one-on-one battles or find ways to shore up the line with extra blockers.
Clayton Thorson has found success in the passing game this year. Bennet Skowronek has stepped up this year. Garrett Dickerson is a great safety valve. The Wildcats have also done well to get Justin Jackson involved in the passing game too.
These are all positive signs and help Northwestern scheme around their poor offensive line. But it is going to be tough to create explosive plays without the offensive line giving Thorson or the running game some time.
Everything revolves around the line. And right now it is not up to snuff.