The Northwestern Wildcats’ offensive renaissance continued to start their homecoming game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Ryan Field.
Clayton Thorson came out throwing, hitting receivers for big plays and moving the Wildcats offense with pace up and down the field. Northwestern looked like the Dan Persa days with the quick throws setting up long passes over the top and an off-balance defense trying to keep up.
That did not last the entire game because Northwestern can never let their fans rest.
The Wildcats scored 24 points in the first half — 21 by the first couple of plays in the second quarter — and then did not score the rest of the game.
Northwestern’s defense regained some of its swagger. The defense gave up only one touchdown and recorded two incredibly athletic interceptions and never broke to preserve the lead.
This game may have been the kind of game Northwestern fans expected often in August. But with the big trip to Columbus looming next week (off an Ohio State loss at that), Northwestern lost some of its mojo from momentum-building wins the last two outings.
Here is what we learned this week:
Pace is the word
When Mick McCall came to Northwestern eight years ago, the promise was to run a pace offense. There was the changeup (the slow), the fastball (the quick) and the super fastball (the super quick).
Dan Persa, Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian (to some extent) all were able to get the team moving and spread the ball around the field quickly with little time to huddle or for the defense to get set.
The last few years, the pace has slowed down considerably. Perhaps it was adding in a strong running back like Justin Jackson or how inexperienced Clayton Thorson was, but the Wildcats’ character and offense changed. There were a lot more throws that took more time to develop and there were fewer throws to the perimeter (perhaps a product of poor wide receiver blocking).
Against Michigan State, the bubble screens and passes to the perimeter were back. Against Indiana, Northwestern brought the pace back again.
The Wildcats’ three touchdown drives took an average of 8.3 plays, 74.7 yards and 2:46 off the clock. That is roughly 3.0 plays per minute.
Northwestern was largely getting the ball out quickly. Thorson found Flynn Nagel a few times on the perimeter for big gains to help spread Indiana’s offense. And that opened up things over the top as Thorson found Austin Carr, Macan Wilson and Solomon Vault for long touchdown throws.
The lack of pace and rhythm Northwestern had in the second half was a big reason why the offense faltered.
Bend, don’t break
Northwestern’s secondary is hurting right now. They are down several players and the depth is getting stretched pretty thing.
That was clear as Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow missed several receivers. The Hoosiers were getting open and beating the Wildcats secondary on several routes.
Lagow missed those throws. Northwestern committed to helping the secondary with limited pass rush — Lagow had all day to throw — and they still gave up 319 yards.
The Hoosiers did not score though. Not often enough at least despite the glaring holes in the secondary. A big reason for that is Northwestern’s secondary stepped up every time it needed to.
There was Montre Hartage ripping the ball away from an Indiana receiver after getting beat on a deep throw to give Northwestern some life again in the first half.
And then there was Kyle Queiro, reaching way above his head with his only good hand to reel in the team’s second interception and perhaps save the game.
Northwestern’s secondary is deplete right now. It is inexperienced and there are still some major mistakes getting made. But they flash their talent around a lot. The Wildcats can rely on this unit for big plays as they continue to grow up.
The Franchise observed
It has been an unexpectedly and somewhat disappointingly quiet year for Anthony Walker.
Northwestern put the full marketing hype machine behind him to start the season. He has not delivered statistically to that level. Certainly offenses are paying more attention to him and blocking him accordingly. An early season injury did not help matters much for him.
Anthony Walker may not be putting up the same gaudy tackling numbers he did last year, but he still shows up with some impressive tackles when he has to.
Walker had 11 tackles in Saturday’s game, including two for a loss. He did a great job wrapping up and tracking down Devonte Williams and Devine Reading on several key third down plays too. Walker is still a strong player in pursuit and recording tackles in the open field.
This was a classic Anthony Walker game. He made big plays and stepped up to lead the defense when they absolutely needed stops.
It was far from a perfect game for Northwestern. But the defense bent and never broke to help the Wildcats maintain the lead and hold on for the win.