Northwestern was already in a defensive, and somewhat shocking, position needing a drive for at least a field goal to take the lead and the win at Ryan Field.
Clayton Thorson scampered to the goal line when Western Michigan forced a fumble. The ball trickled into the end zone and bounded toward the out of bounds line. For some reason, the Western Michigan player tried to throw the ball back into the field of play rather than let it out for a touchback.
It did not matter. The referees, after review, claimed his foot was down (that part is still disputed) and awarded the touchback anyway. Western Michigan successfully ran out the clock and walked out of Evanston with a 22-21 victory.
The optimism and confidence of a new season following a 10-win season evaporated quickly. The Wildcats had the first score of the game on the opening drive, but were the inferior team throughout the game as they got beat on both lines. The Broncos dominated the game.
This was not the same dominant Northwestern team as last year. This was a Northwestern team that looks like it may struggle to get to a bowl game — and certainly it is an uphill climb after losing a must-win non-conference game, albeit against a MAC favorite.
Here are three things we learned about Northwestern from Saturday’s loss:
1) This is not last year’s defense
Northwestern built a 10-win season last year on the back of an incredibly strong defense. One of the best defenses in the country by some measures.
This is not last year’s defense. The loss of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson on the ends were going to hurt. But Ifeadi Odenigbo did a good job providing pressure from the end throughout the game. The interior of the line though was very poor.
Northwestern got very little push defensively from its line and did not blitz very much. That gave Zach Terrell plenty of time to throw the ball. He threw for 218 yards on 26-for-36 passing.
Worse still was poor tackling let Jamauri Bogan loose into the second and third levels. Bogan rushed for 103 yards on 22 carries.
The Broncos were able to dictate the pace of play and control the game throughout. They had control of the line and were able to attack the Wildcats constantly. Unlike last year, Northwestern never took the step up and made the big play to turn the game.
Western Michigan gained 416 total yards and held the ball for 39 minutes. The Broncos had three drives of 10 or more plays. They scored a touchdown on just one of those, but that ate up a good chunk of time. And Western Michigan made all the big plays in those moments.
This was not last year’s defense. Not even close. That changes the formulation for Northwestern’s outlook.
2) Clayton Thorson ran a functioning offense
Northwestern let Clayton Thorson go a little bit, and he largely delivered. His opening drive was a thing of beauty as Justin Jackson carried the ball just twice and Thorson threw the Wildcats down the field. He made some big third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion to deliver Northwestern an early lead.
The Wildcats offense awoke again in the second half after stalling some. Thorson and Jackson combined to make several plays.
His fumble aside, Thorson confidently led Northwestern down the field. There was little reason to believe the Wildcats were not going to make it down field and have a chance to take the lead down by one point. Confidence was deservedly that high in Thorson and Jackson.
Jackson was stupendous, rushing for 124 yards and 23 carries with three touchdowns. Thorson had 196 yards on 15-for-22 passing. Northwestern was able to move the ball generally and put itself in scoring positions.
What was the team’s biggest weakness was not one this game. The Wildcats could count on their offense to move the ball and score point against a decent defense and under some game pressure.
3) The offensive line held everything back
The offense though did get into plenty of trouble. Lots of trouble. And it was extremely anemic in the first half when Northwestern’s defense was getting some stops. The Wildcats led 7-3 and 14-6 for a long time, giving Western Michigan the chance to stay in the game and gain confidence.
Western Michigan made a living in the backfield for Northwestern and disrupted a lot of what the team tried to do. Clayton Thorson had to roll out of the pocket on numerous occasions and faced a steady defensive rush. He was constantly under pressure.
Jackson was able to find his holes. And when Thorson had time, he was able to move the ball. The question is whether Northwestern will be able to create time and space when the competition increases.
The Wildcats lost the battle on both lines, an area where they were expected to hold advantages over the Broncos. That part is extremely concerning coming out of a first game.
The Wildcats will have to improve their blocking schemes. Thorson will have to continue improving reading and recognizing blitzes pre-snap too.
Northwestern will find it tough to get anywhere without improved play along both lines. Certainly on the offensive line especially.
The Wildcats have some work to do as they go back to the drawing board.