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What we learned from Northwestern’s 9-7 loss to Illinois State

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Austin Carr, Northwestern Wildcats, Illinois State Redbirds

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.

Now?

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.

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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.

 

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win

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Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon. 

The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.

It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program. 

It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football. 

The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.

Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts. 

Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day. 

But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers. 

The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers. 

Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game. 

But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.

But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play. 

Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time. 

Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own. 

It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt. 

This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter. 

Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six. 

Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern. 

The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh. 

For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players. 

The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility. 

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Thorson dials up best against MSU once again

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As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing. 

That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans. 

Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games. 

History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes. 

It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite. 

At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense. 

Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game. 

Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for. 

Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too. 

But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game. 

Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter. 

It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game. 

He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19. 

The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play. 

Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well. 

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5 biggest Big Ten West division Spring Football storylines

What are the biggest storylines to follow as teams across the Big Ten West division begin spring football?

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Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?

With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the

Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.

Frost’s First Spring

As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the

Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.

Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.

Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.

Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.

O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.

Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson

Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.

Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.

So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.

Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin

Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.

Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.

However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.

Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.

Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul

There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.

It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?

Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.

I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.

Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.

Brohm’s Encore Performance

What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.

But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.

There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.

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5 reasons to watch Northwestern Wildcats vs. Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl

The Northwestern Wildcats look to keep their hot streak going as they go up against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl.

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The Northwestern Wildcats entered the season with big expectations. With senior running back Justin Jackson and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson, it felt like a perfect storm for the Wildcats. A chance to compete for a Big Ten title in a weakened West Division.

Things never turn out easy. A slow start and losses to Wisconsin and Penn State quickly ended those dreams.

Then the win streak started. Seven straight wins, including three straight overtime victories for the first time in NCAA history, later and Northwestern put together a pretty successful season. The Wildcats have one of the longest win streaks in the country and ended up with the nine-win season so many projected them to get.

Yet, the disappointment is real. The Wildcats thought they might be playing for a title this year . . . and probably playing a January bowl game at least. The Music City Bowl has a bit of a letdown feel to it.

It should not. Despite increased expectations from Pat Fitzgerald’s superb coaching, Northwestern still values every bowl experience. And this will be their first Music City Bowl.

The chance to beat a SEC team, even one that has struggled as much as Kentucky, will still be a treat. Northwestern knows not to take these appearances for granted.

The same as their Wildcat counterparts for this game. Kentucky is not exactly a football power either. They are a team with just eight bowl wins in 16 appearances. Kentucky is excited for the opportunity to score an upset.

Running back Benny Snell is already guaranteeing victory:

Kentucky started the year 5-2 and 6-3 before finishing the year with three losses in the last four games. That included crushing losses to rival Louisville and Georgia.

Kentucky’s statistical profile is nothing impressive. But the team still has some strong, opportunistic players.

This game appears to have a little more juice than the team’s poor histories might suggest. And this is really a matchup of two programs looking for their place in the national landscape. It should make for an intriguing matchup. One that may not be as lopsided as the records might suggest.

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Justin Jackson, ball carrier

The Music City Bowl will mark the last time Justin Jackson dons a Northwestern uniform. In four years, Jackson has set all kinds of records and is a standard of excellence for running backs in Northwestern history.

After a slow start to the season, Jackson rushed for 1,154 yards for his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing year. He 96.2 rushing yards per game and nine touchdowns. Some of those numbers are somewhat modest. But that is also who Jackson is.

Jackson is a workhorse. A humble guy who simply shows up and falls forward. He earned the nickname the “Ballcarrier” based on the Ryan Field public address call “Justin Jackson, the ball carrier.” That is the best description for him.

Jackson had a big game at last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and is looking for a repeat performance in his final game at Northwestern.

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Running back battle

This game will be a more traditional Big Ten, ground and pound game. Both teams want to run the ball and have great running backs to do so.

Benny Snell Jr. is not merely offering a guarantee. That is motivation for himself. He has the power to change the game.

Snell rushed for 1,318 yards this year and 18 touchdowns. He averaged 109.8 yards per game. He is a tough player to contain as the sophomore rushed for more than 150 yards in three of his last five games. That included 200-plus yards against Louisville.

He faces a stout run defense. Northwestern’s run defense helped hold Saquon Barkley in check and is one of the best rushing defenses in the country, giving up 111.3 rushing yards per game.

Kentucky knows it must establish the run to win this game. The Wildcats will rely heavily on their sophomore back.

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Clayton Thorson on display

Clayton Thorson made some minor (but expected) news this week when he announced he would return for his senior year. After an up-and-down season for the junior quarterback, the NFL was kind of an afterthought. There was some early draft buzz for him and he clearly has the talent. But the consistency was never there.

This game could be another chance to showcase himself and rebuild some NFL credibility heading into his senior year. And his last chance to play with Justin Jackson will serve as an unofficial passing of the torch. Next year, Northwestern will rely heavily on Thorson.

Kentucky’s pass defense has had its struggles. The Wildcats gave up 263.5 passing yards per game. And they recorded only five interceptions. This was not an opportunistic defense. And everyone should remember Kentucky giving up two touchdowns in the team’s attempt to end a 30-year losing streak to Florida when cornerbacks failed to get in position to cover wide receivers.

Yes, it actually happened twice.

Turnovers have been Thorson’s weakness this year. He threw 12 interceptions against 15 touchdowns this year. But Thorson is capable of having big throwing games still. When he limits his mistakes — as he has done during the win streak, averaging 215.1 passing yards per game and just five interceptions — he is a dangerous quarterback.

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Under Pressure

It goes without saying that the team that protects the quarterback will have the best chance to win the game. Both Kentucky and Northwestern have had their struggles along the offensive line. And that will be a point to watch throughout this game.

Kentucky and Northwestern each gave up 29 sacks. That is quite a lot and suggests some holes in the defense. With the Northwestern’s strong run defense and Kentucky’s poor passing offense, it could be a field day in the backfield if Kentucky is forced to pass. Kentucky does not ask quarterback Stephen Johnson to do a whole lot.

Northwestern and Kentucky can both get after the quarterback. Kentucky posted 28 sacks this year and Northwestern had 30.

Josh Allen and Denzil Ware were great getting into the backfield. Allen recorded seven sacks and Ware had 6.5. They could be terrors in the backfield when Northwestern passes. And that has always been something that slows the Wildcats’ offense down.

For Northwestern, Joe Gaziano has eight sacks and has been a great rusher off the edge. Freshman Samdup Miller came on strong to end the year, creating a strong pair of edge rushers.

Northwestern’s defense is really disciplined and playing extraordinarily well to end the season.

Travel Distance

What is interesting about the Music City Bowl is its location in Nashville.

Kentucky fans will surely make the relatively short drive from Lexington to Nashville — as they do for the SEC basketball tournament. But for Northwestern fans in Chicago, this is probably the ideal bowl location.

Sure, everyone would have enjoyed a vacation to Florida. And California Wildcats would have loved to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl or to stay at home in Northern California for the Foster Farms Bowl. But Nashville is a unique trip for Chicagoland Wildcats near the home base.

Nashville is a roughly seven-hour drive straight down I-65. That is relatively close for a bowl game. It seems like several Northwestern fans will take Pat Fitzgerald up on that offer and make the short trip.

Game Info

American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Who:
 Northwestern (9-3) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
When: Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. CT (ESPN)
Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

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