This was not a part of the script. Then again, there never really seems to be a clear or certain script for Northwestern and its football team.
Following a loss last week against a good Western Michigan team, Pat Fitzgerald tried to say the sky is not falling. The team could and would improve. All of its goals for Big Ten season still were ahead. The team could still correct things.
With Sean Slattery banking a 33-yard field goal off the top of the upright as time expired, Illinois State scored an ugly 9-7 victory at Ryan Field, sending Northwestern to 0-2. The Wildcats’ most winnable games are behind them and they did not look impressive — or functional — in either.
Northwestern’s offense mustered only seven points and 277 yards against the No. 9 FCS team. That was just one touchdown drive and one missed field goal for Northwestern. The offense continued to get beat at the line and look like the worse team against supposedly inferior teams.
For the second straight week, Northwestern underachieved. And that is an understatement to say.
With a difficult opponent in Duke heading to Evanston before Big Ten season begins, Northwestern has a whole lot more questions to answer. And some very basic ones.
1) Northwestern’s offensive line prevents the offense from doing anything
Northwestern’s offense already is not a juggernaut by any means. Last year it was the worst in the Big Ten by almost every measure. About the only thing it had going for it was Justin Jackson and the run game.
Jackson had a big game against Western Michigan, but problems were evident with Northwestern then. The offensive line did not give Clayton Thorson time to throw and the offense could not get into rhythm.
Somehow, Northwestern did worse this game. Illinois State was constantly in the backfield and flushing Thorson out of the pocket. He was scrambling and rolling all game long, cutting the field in half. Northwestern’s offensive line was holding to give him just a bit more time.
Thorson ended the day an inaccurate 17 for 41 for 191 yards. Justin Jackson finished with just 39 yards on 11 carries. Somehow Northwestern went away from its strengths time and time again.
Then again, the offensive line was not giving Jackson much room to run this game. And the Redbirds goaded Thorson to throw and put him under pressure into bad throws.
The Wildcats offense would inevitably shoot itself in the foot and end all momentum and send the ball back to Illinois State. The process would frustratingly repeat over and over again.
Northwestern was unable to stay in scoring position or put points on the board.
2) The defense can carry its weight. . . some
Northwestern’s defense carried much of the burden in the loss to Western Michigan last week. This was not last year’s defense, but it certainly could be better.
The start to the game against Illinois State did not seem to be much better. The Redbirds moved the ball well against them. But the Wildcats were able to get into the backfield and put pressure on the quarterback.
Jake Kolbe made some incredible throws on his way 287 yards on 30-for-41 passing. He targeted Montrell Hartage again. He got Matthew Harris to commit three pass interference penalties.
It was not the defense’s best day — as evidenced again by the game-winning drive at the end.
Still, Northwestern’s defense held Illinois State to nine points. The Wildcats came up with two turnovers — one in the end zone and another deep into their territory that seemed destined for a big return. Asking Northwestern’s defense to score all the points is going a bit too far — even for last year’s defense.
The Wildcats were better defensively Saturday than they were last week. They did enough to win the game.
Whether that is enough to have a shot at winning a Big Ten game down the road. . .
3) Northwestern has a lot to worry about
The defense was significantly better Saturday. Not quite its dominant self from a year ago, but better. Enough to give Northwestern’s increasingly inept offense a chance to win.
Is that enough for the Wildcats to feel good heading into a brutal October stretch to start Big Ten play? Is that enough even to beat Duke next week?
On top of that, can the offense function with the offensive line giving Clayton Thorson almost no time to throw the ball? Can Thorson continue to progress or is he going to remain relatively inefficient and unable to score — even against a FCS team?
And then, worse, Justin Jackson appeared to tweak his ankle and left the game on Northwestern’s only scoring drive. The Wildcats will not go anywhere without him.
The Wildcats’ offense was terrible again. They could not get separation or momentum. This was not a team looking bad, but still dominating an inferior opponent. This seemed more than an offense playing down to its competition.
These were even teams.
And Illinois State deserved to win, just like Western Michigan deserved to win.
This all raises bigger questions for Northwestern. Perhaps more than just when will the Wildcats get their first win.