Northwestern had problems through the first four weeks of the season. The Wildcats offensive line was like a sieve, failing to give much of a push against a stronger-than-expected Western Michigan team and the FCS’s Illinois State.
The Wildcats were in a bad spot. Their offense was in traction and the defense was not the powerful, disciplined unit that dominated opponents in 2015.
Northwestern is not the same team anyone anticipated at the beginning of the year. The Wildcats have had to piece things together in each game and find an identity seemingly every week. This was not the defense-first team with a “better” offense Northwestern hoped for.
One week Northwestern’s defense looks lock down, the next week it looks worn down. One week it looks like the Wildcats can get pressure in the backfield, the next barely a hand on the quarterback.
The offense was the same way.
One week Clayton Thorson looks like he has made progress, the next he looks inaccurate and in need of replacing. One week Justin Jackson is the best running back in the Big Ten, the next week ignored.
The Wildcats’ 38-31 win over the Hawkeyes last week was as confusing as any other. The offense came alive for 38 points. The defense put pressure on Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard, led by Ifeadi Odenigbo’s four-sack day.
The Hawkeyes do not have a strong offensive line so it is hard to say what is real and what is not when it comes to Northwestern at the bye week.
The Wildcats certainly used the bye week to get healthy — they have been without star cornerback Matthew Harris since Week Two. They also should use the bye week to reset themselves just a bit. At 2-3, Northwestern has a lot of work to do to get to bowl eligibility, but the team has shown enough potential to get there.
Northwestern’s bye week came at the right time. The Wildcats are coming off a win and feeling refreshed. They have something to build off.
Northwestern’s schedule looks more manageable than it did at the beginning of the season. A trip to East Lansing, Mich., this weekend to face Michigan State is not as daunting now as it was in August. Ohio State and Indiana still loom to close the month before the team finishes off Big Ten West play (vs. Wisconsin, at Minnesota and at Purdue) with the Illinois rivalry oncoming too (at Ryan Field).
Northwestern will have to do some work to make the Iowa game more the normal than the Nebraska or <gasp> the Illinois State game.
To do that, the Wildcats will need to see Ifeadi Odenigbo and the defensive line become more consistent with the pressure they create in the backfield. This is still a strong defense — 29th in S&P+ — but one that has been inconsistent all year.
Health in the secondary will help the Wildcats find their aggression again. Their defense has been characterized by a read and react style trying to keep everything in front of them.
The offense too has to find consistency. Northwestern has to get Justin Jackson involved, but not against loaded boxes. Clayton Thorson has developed a good chemistry with several receivers — especially Austin Carr.
If Thorson can become more accurate and build off his strong passing performances in recent weeks, Northwestern’s rushing attack gets re-opened. Like it did against Iowa.
That last game before the bye week certainly left a good taste. The Wildcats will certainly be spending their time trying to duplicate it.
The Wildcats’ goals are still present — at least the very basic one of making a bowl game.
But the road is not easy. The schedule remains daunting. And a 4-3 record in the Big Ten is not easy. If the Wildcats finish 5-4 in the conference, it will be the first time they finish with back-to-back winning records in Big Ten play since 2008-09.
Northwestern though returns to action this week with plenty of optimism that it has resolved some of its problems and is ready, as Pat Fitzgerald likes to emphasize, to finish.