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What we learned from Northwestern’s 49-7 win over Bowling Green

The Northwestern Wildcats scored one of the biggest victories in program history, romping over Bowling Green 49-7. But the real challenges lie ahead.

Bennett Skowronek, Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern Wildcats needed to bounce back in the biggest way following a defeat at Duke. The team looked lost and struggled to build any type of offensive cohesion and ultimately got worn down and beaten by a decent Duke team.

The Wildcats had a lot of questions to answer about themselves. Not to mention their play failed to inspire much confidence for the Big Ten play to come.

Northwestern was never going to get that back in one outing against a team like Bowling Green. The Falcons were 0-2 and coming off a defeat to FCS South Dakota. The Falcons were not exactly a challenge. But the Wildcats had to do something they so rarely do — absolutely dominate a team.

If there was some hope to cling to, Northwestern did that in more in dismantling Bowling Green 49-7 at Ryan Field on Saturday. It was a win in all three phases, a rarity for Northwestern.

No one was going to overreact to this victory. Bowling Green is a struggling team. But it was the kind of victory the Wildcats needed. The kind that restored some confidence and was just the team taking care of its business.

Clayton Thorson passed for a career-high 370 yards, throwing dimes to receivers to renew that NFL interest. Justin Jackson got himself going, rushing for 121 yards and three touchdowns. The defense put enough pressure on the quarterback to force him into a bad day.

There was still plenty for the Wildcats to improve on. But it is hard not to come away happy with Northwestern. This was the largest margin of victory for Northwestern since a 1970 48-0 win over Illinois. The Cats beat Eastern Illinois 41-0 in 2015, Thorson’s freshman year, and beat Illinois 61-23 in the Big Ten championship 2000 season.

This kind of scoreboard dominance is rare in Northwestern history. The Wildcats do not beat teams like this.

It made for a fairly enjoyable evening for the freshman attending their first Northwestern home game. And an unusually boring and pro forma second half. Northwestern took care of its work early going up 35-7 at halftime.

It was exactly what Northwestern needed.

Still, it is just one game. Northwestern is 0-0 now with the nine Big Ten games ahead of it. And the Wildcats have a lot of work to do.

Give Clayton Thorson time and he is marvelous

Clayton Thorson had a bad day in Durham a week ago. Everyone does. It just looks that much worse when it comes from the quarterback. Even with two years under his belt, Thorson still has a tendency to try to force things. Maybe it was an overconfidence in his ability.

That ability is what has NFL scouts buzzing and it was that ability on display for Northwestern throughout Saturday’s win. His 370 yards and 23-for-30 completion really says it all. He took over the game, throwing into tight windows and finding receivers. He had a masterful control over the offense at all times. When he threw it deep to Bennet Skowronek and Macan Wilson or dumped it off underneath to Garrett Dickerson, it was always on the money.

A big reason for that was the offensive line gave him the time to throw it. The team did a much better job maintaining a pocket for him and giving him the time he needs. This is where Thorson was brilliant in the first game against Nevada.

Thorson can make all the throws his team needs him to make. And he makes them accurately. He just needs the time to throw it. And not much time. If his receivers get open, Thorson will get it to them. And even make them open. He just needs the time and the confidence he will have that time.

Defense still has its holes

The Northwestern defense stood tall for most of the evening. The Wildcats gave up just 352 yards of total offense and seven points. But that 352 yards certainly would suggest Bowling Green moved the ball a decent amount.

Even early in the game, the Wildcats gave up some big plays, only to take them back with some big plays in return. The Wildcats did not break ever and kept the Falcons from getting into good scoring position. But they made some big gashes.

The game turned with Northwestern up 14-7. Bowling Green drove to the Northwestern 37-yard line when Montre Hartage caught up to Detrin Guyton and ripped the ball out for Godwin Igwebuike to scoop and return back into Bowling Green territory. That set up a NU touchdown a play later and the rout was one.

The Wildcats had plenty of moments in the first half where they missed tackles and gave up big passing plays. The team’s lack of depth in the secondary shows — both Brian Bullock and Marcus McShephard missed Saturday’s game once again.

It was never enough to put Bowling Green in a scoring position. The defensive line got its most consistent push and pressure of the season. But there were still concerns about how the team stayed discipline and got Bowling Green off the field quicker. The Big Ten is going to be much better.

Not in Kansas Anymore…

Northwestern figured it would learn a lot about its team through the first three games. After all, the real goal lay in the nine games that make up Big Ten season. These first three games were just the appetizer. It is hard to have watched those three games and said Northwestern is a true Big Ten contender — especially with Wisconsin and Penn State, the two toughest teams, on the schedule first.

The time to make simple and basic mistakes is over now.

Northwestern showed in its three non-conference games that it can have a truly dynamic offense. The skill players who projected as the top players can take over games. But they are bolstered by the bedrocks of any football team and program. And those are maybe not as strong as Northwestern would like. They showed plenty of cracks through the first three games.

The offensive line struggled early in the season keeping Clayton Thorson in the pocket and giving him time to throw. When he was, he could dominate. The same for Justin Jackson.

The defense still has struggled to get consistent pressure and has only three sacks through three games. The Wildcats will have to do a better job getting after the quarterback in Big Ten play. That pressure will be everything for the defense.

The Wildcats are known for playing their game close to the vest at this point in the season. They likely did not unleash all their wrinkles to the offense or many of their blitz packages — you could probably count their blitzes in all three games on two hands. Northwestern will likely add more to their offense and defense by the time they take the field next.

But the team still has a lot to work on and improve on before they play at Camp Randall Stadium in two weeks. Northwestern did plenty to get by in non-conference play. The real season starts now.

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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