Northwestern did not have the non-conference season it expected.
Yes, the Wildcats played a tougher-than-expected group of teams. They have always found a way to challenge themselves in non-conference play. Pat Fitzgerald does not hide from anyone. Still the losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State were very unexpected. Especially that loss to the Redbirds. And especially how it all went down in the end.
The Wildcats needed to be 3-0 heading into conference season to feel comfortable about their bowl prospects. They had to be at least 2-1 and take a few toss-up games — starting with Saturday’s opener against the Cornhuskers for an extremely difficult October schedule.
Northwestern is under the gun and dealing with a lot of unexpected issues and frustrations heading into Big Ten season.
Northwestern is turning the corner to its toughest stretch of the season — vs. Nebraska, @ Ohio State, Bye Week, @ Michigan State, vs. Indiana, @ Iowa, @ Wisconsin — and facing the prospect of needing to finish better than .500 in the Big Ten to make a bowl game.
But what exactly is the state of the program after its interesting and surprising non-conference season? Let’s take a look.
The Good News
If there is any good news it is that for as inconsistent as Northwestern’s defense has been, the unit is still very good. Maybe not top-10 in defensive S&P+ like last year or win a game without any help from the offense good like last year, but good to bend a little but not break. The Wildcats will keep scores low enough. Or they should.
The health issues in the secondary are concerning. And the Wildcats have struggled getting consistent pressure. They tried rushing both Western Michigan and Illinois State without blitzing for the most part and gave up a lot of passing yards. Northwestern has to try to find a way to get more pressure using its front four or add some blitzes to their defensive scheme.
The linebackers have rallied to the ball well and Northwestern has always found a way to hang around.
That was all against non-conference competition. That is not the Big Ten.
Northwestern has to continue to hope this group can step up and resemble last year’s unit.
If there is any other good news, it is that Northwestern appears to have developed a few decent wide receivers. They do not get open consistently, but when Clayton Thorson has time, he has found Austin Carr (the Big Ten’s leading receiver) and Garrett Dickerson and use some of the weapons he has there.
It has been about the only consistent thing for the offense so far this season.
The Bad News
Nothing for Northwestern has been consistent. At all.
And that inconsistency starts at the two most important areas for any successful football team — the offensive and defensive line.
Clayton Thorson has not had much time to set his feet and throw (he already is not super accurate throwing underneath routes). And with so many teams loading the box to stop Justin Jackson, Thorson rarely has the time to throw over the top and attack the middle of the field.
Offensive lineman have gotten caught holding and they are struggling to create holes for Justin Jackson to wriggle through.
The problem was so bad after the loss to Illinois State, Pat Fitzgerald seemed to suggest he was going to re-open some competition. The same starters won anyway. They played better against Duke, but it was hardly confidence-inspiring.
And that leads to the next bad news. Clayton Thorson just has not improved in a significant way. Much of Northwestern’s season was based on his natural progression. And it just has not happened.
Thorson has completed just 50 of 102 passes so far this year. He is averaging 235.7 yards per game. That is buoyed for sure by a 300-yard performance against Duke in this edition of small sample size theater. And Thorson threw the ball 41 times against Illinois State as Northwestern abandoned the run. Thorson should not be the offense’s focal point.
But to complete less than 50 percent of his passes puts a lot more pressure on that offensive line and the run game. And defenses know this.
The Wildcats needed a better Thorson. Right now the second-year starter is floundering some to get Northwestern heading in the right direction.
Craziest Stat: 283
Austin Carr has picked up a Big Ten-best 283 receiving yards so far this season in three games. And that is saying something considering Northwestern has an inefficient quarterback. Carr can do a lot of good things for Northwestern and has filled in a lot of gaps with the offense with defenses so focused on stopping the run.
Carr is the Wildcats’ easiest safety valve right now on offense.
Player Who Has Stepped Up: Godwin Igwebuike
Northwestern was supposed to be very strong in the secondary. Injuries though have ripped that apart just a little bit. Matthew Harris is out with a concussion. Kyle Queiro also is out. Leaving that unit a little depleted.
Veteran Godwin Igwebuike though has stepped up. He is second on the team in tackles with 22 including two for a loss. He has added four pass breakups and an interception against Duke.
The veteran safety has had to be everywhere to cover up some of the inexperience in front of him. But he has been strong and should look to have a great season the rest of the way.
Player Who Needs to Step Up: Anthony Walker
Anthony Walker came into the season with a lot of hype. Northwestern put a little bit of marketing weight behind the potential NFL first round pick and award watch list favorite.
What they did not tell anyone (again) is he suffered a knee injury in camp and is still getting himself back into shape.
Walker has just 19 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss through three games. He had games last year where he would tally that in a single performance. Walker just is not right.
The good news is, he said he is finally feeling healthy. And judging by the strip fumble and recovery he had against Duke, Walker could be back to flying around the field and making big plays to lead Northwestern’s defense very soon.