The Northwestern Wildcats talked a big game entering the season, even with some glaring holes. The hope was it could use the non-conference season to tide over some of those holes. The hope was they would still pick up wins and at least make progress.
It was not like Northwestern’s non-conference schedule was difficult this year. Nevada was one of the worst teams in the nation last year and was working in a new coach. Bowling Green, next week’s opponent, is not much better than Nevada last year. Duke was the wild card, a four-win team with a good coaching staff.
It was the game at Durham that would be the only truly strong test for Northwestern ahead of the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin. This was the biggest test for the team.
And after watching Saturday’s game, it is hard not to be a bit concerned with how the Wildcats played. The Blue Devils dominated in a 41-17 win at Wallace Wade Stadium. Northwestern failed its first big test — and not even the biggest one they will face early in the season.
The Blue Devils outgained the Wildcats 538-191. Justin Jackson was held to less than 100 yards — both by Duke’s defense and Northwestern’s coaching. Clayton Thorson went from poised star quarterback to unsure and rushing his throws. The depleted secondary was exposed and the defense tired out by the offense’s inability to move the ball.
Everything that seemingly could go wrong for the Wildcats went wrong in Saturday’s game. There was hardly anything positive to take out of it — aside from Matt Alviti finally getting the offense going on a final garbage-time drive.
It would be easy to say Northwestern should go back to the drawing board. But it feels after two weeks and seeing some of the same problems show up — particularly on the offensive line — the team needs to hit a hard reset and rediscover its identity — or how to create that identity again.
It is still early in the season. Northwestern is likely not as bad as it played Saturday at Duke. Nor is it probably as good as the team played in the second half against Nevada. There is a happy medium. And the Wildcats’ best play is likely still ahead of them.
But the games start counting in three weeks. And there is just one game left to start pointing in the right direction.
Here are some things to watch for after Saturday’s game.
Justin Jackson has no room
Justin Jackson, last year’s Big Ten leading rusher, is the best player on the team. He still has an uncanny ability to turn nothing plays into short gains and he is the kind of player who gets stronger as the game goes on. There is no universe where Jackson should not be heavily involved in the team’s offense.
That is what happened Saturday. Jackson rushed for 18 yards on seven carries. Seven carries! That is the fewest rushing attempts in a game for Jackson in his career. He had eight carries in his freshman debut against Cal.
The only common thread between all these games where Jackson does not get carries is Northwestern loses. In Northwestern’s efforts to lighten Jackson’s load, they sometimes go too far — think last year’s disappointing 9-7 loss to Illinois State where Jackson had just 12 carries.
This was not all Jackson’s fault. Jackson could find little room to run against the offensive line and Duke again loaded up the box. The Blue Devils’ blitz schemes often confused the Wildcats’ offensive line and left Jackson with nowhere to go.
Quickly, NU abandoned the run game and turned to Clayton Thorson exclusively. And this was even when the game was still in the balance. Northwestern cut the deficit to 21-10 by halftime. A comeback was not impossible.
Yet, Jackson had just one carry in the second half.
The offensive line is a huge problem. There is no denying it at this point. This was two straight games. The Wildcats tried to line up the middle and send Jackson into the middle of the horde of the defensive front.
If Northwestern is going to come close to accomplishing any of its goals this year, the team has to find a way to make Jackson an effective runner. Getting him into space on the perimeter, running counters or getting him passes in the flat, worked in the last two weeks. Northwestern has to find a way to get him the ball more.
Depth Issues Again in the Secondary
Northwestern’s defense stood as tall as it could for much of the game. Eventually, it just broke down — showing all the telltale signs of fatigue like arm tackling, missed tackles and poor gap control. Duke’s dominance on offense was as much about Daniel Jones’ stellar play as it was the offensive line beating up on a tired team.
It was 21-10 entering the second half and Northwestern trailed 24-10 before a Clayton Thorson interception let the flood gates open. The Wildcats could not stop the bleeding because their offense could not stay on the field.
That is when NU’s depth issues were exposed especially in the secondary.
The Wildcats were already thin entering the game at cornerback with Brian Bullock and Marcus McShephard out with injury. Starting safety Kyle Queiro started at cornerback opposite Montrage Hartage. Northwestern was scrambling to make things work.
Then came the dubious targeting call on Jared McGee in the first half, further thinning out the Wildcats’ secondary.
Duke took full advantage. Jones threw for 305 yards, taking full advantage of the team’s inexperience. Northwestern did not help matters by getting a poor pass rush — what little success the team had in the second quarter came largely because the team built some pressure — but the team’s lack of depth was again exposed.
Every team probably has a position group they cannot afford to have injuries hit hard. That is the secondary for Northwestern, supposedly the team’s strongest defensive unit.
About that offensive line…
The offensive line continues to be a big story for Northwestern. And it goes far beyond the failure to get Justin Jackson going.
Clayton Thorson faced constant pressure and was sacked four times. Thorson’s inaccuracy did not help, but he was also fairly inaccurate because he was evading pressure constantly. Thorson’s poor habits — holding onto the ball too long, trying to squeeze the ball into tight windows and letting the ball sail — were all exacerbated by the offensive line’s poor play.
This is becoming a broken record. But Duke brought blitzes again and again and blew up plays before they could even start. The offensive line never adjusted or made the communication to pick it up.
Some of that falls on Thorson. As a three-year starter, he should be able to recognize these packages and make adjustments at the line. In this sense, he will need to step up. And Northwestern’s game plan likely has to change to account for this unit’s struggles so far.
Northwestern seemed unwilling to change much of its game plan after struggling along the line in the first game. This is two straight games where the offensive line failed to get much of a push and put their quarterback under pressure.
That is a trend that needs reversing.