The Northwestern Wildcats’ momentum came to a halt at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. The good will bought out with questionable playcalling and drive.
Northwestern was searching for offense all game long. Minnesota was making a living putting Clayton Thorson on the ground, outrunning and beating Northwestern’s offensive line throughout the game.
The Wildcats though finally broke through. Thorson completed passes to Andrew Scanlan and Flynn Nagel with Austin Carr out following a vicious hit, called targeting. Justin Jackson found some running room and burst into the end zone.
Northwestern, lifeless and trailing by 15 points had found its way back into the game. Anthony Walker then forced a fumble, cementing a stellar game for Northwestern’s star middle linebacker. The Wildcats were set to make a larger dent in the game, down 15-6.
Facing fourth down, Northwestern lined up to go for it inside their 30. Kicker Jack Mitchell stayed on the sideline.
Predictably, even for a Northwestern offense that was rolling, Minnesota got into the backfield and stopped Justin Jackson. The Wildcats, trailing by nine, gave up the opportunity to cut the deficit to a single score. The Gophers marched down the field and scored a touchdown, putting the game away in a 29-12 win at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.
There was not much drama to this game. Northwestern got dominated up front on both ends, the defense putting up a little more resistance.
At a certain point, though, the Wildcats could only look at themselves again. They returned to the uninspired play that characterized the beginning of the season with inefficient playcalling, a passive approach and poor execution.
This was not the way Northwestern has played when they built confidence through a brutal October and put themselves in a position to make a bowl game after a 0-2 start. That dream remains with 60 minutes against rival Illinois on the calendar.
Leading into that game, Northwestern played perhaps its worst offensive game since those first weeks of the season. Yes, even worse than the Wisconsin game where Wisconsin’s defense stymied Northwestern’s offense.
What characterized those strong games against Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State were the aggression and abandon Northwestern played with. They went on the attack and picked apart the defenses they played. They went back to spreading the ball to the perimeter, putting speedsters like Solomon Vault and even Justin Jackson in space.
Northwestern tried doing that Saturday against Minnesota, but to less effect. The aggression seemed ratcheted down — whether it came from the players or the gameplan. The Wildcats were back to confusing play calling and poor execution.
Yes, Clayton Thorson ended up throwing for 276 yards, completing just 28 of 45 passes. Yes, Justin Jackson ran for 90 yards on 22 carries.
But the Wildcats also could not avoid a pass rush that got to Thorson seven times. They could not avoid silly mistakes — all three of Northwestern’s penalties felt like drive killers. And they could not avoid their own mistakes, Thorson put the ball on the ground twice as he tried avoiding sacks.
Northwestern was its own worst enemy, as it had been when the team was struggling.
This was the kind of game that reminded fans of the frustrations with offensive coordinator Mick McCall. It was the kind of game that reminded fans of Pat Fitzgerald’s sometimes poor clock and game management.
This is the Northwestern the team and program have tried to shed as Clayton Thorson came into his own and the offense awoke.
The Wildcats ended up outgaining the Gophers in the game. Things are not so dire. Yet, Northwestern found itself trailing the entire game, chasing Minnesota and unable to pick up any rhythm.
That is until desperation set in late and the team had to move with some pace and rhythm.
This was the magic elixir the Wildcats discovered through October. They could move the ball in rhythm quickly, keeping defenses off balance. Perhaps Thorson is not accurate enough to play this way the entire team. The sophomore still goes hot and cold.
But as the Wildcats figure that out, they sometimes revert to their shell. They trailed 14-0 at Michigan State and 10-0 at Purdue. Northwestern does get off to slow starts as they find their rhythm, ramping up their aggression as confidence grows.
Finding that confidence has always been the trick, even if the team remains relatively calm. It shrinks the margin of error for the Wildcats.
And that margin is already small.
Northwestern’s greatest strength was its schematic advantage. That is how Randy Walker and the early Pat Fitzgerald teams beat teams. That schematic advantage has slowly dissipated, though.
When the Wildcats are bad, it is because the team goes conservative and fails to break out and execute. That was seemingly always a given with the Wildcats.
These were the problems that trailed Northwestern into the season. That plagued them in the first few weeks too.
They came back in the loss to Minnesota. And now puts Northwestern’s season on the brink.