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Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 3

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 3
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Duke Blue Devils.

1. Will NU reach double-digit points?

Tim Balk (Half-full): Duke’s defense is respectable. And NU’s offense is scuffling beyond belief. But I still cannot see the Cats failing to reach 10 points again after scoring just seven against Illinois State.

For one, NU is due to get some points out of its defense and special teams. The Cats were often able to make up for poor offensive production with defensive scores and big plays in the return game last year. In their 19-10 win at Duke, Solomon Vault returned a kickoff for a touchdown and a Godwin Igwebuike fumble recovery set up the offense for an easy field goal. NU’s 19 points came in spite of one of the worst starts of Clayton Thorson’s career. It was a familiar theme throughout the 2015 season. This fall, the Cats’ defense has yet find the end zone and has made few big plays. It’s about time that changes.

Plus, NU’s offense is equally due to find something resembling a rhythm. After the ill-advised air attack backfired against Illinois State, look for NU to find some success with its bread and butter — the run game — against a Duke team that surrendered 239 yards on the ground last week against Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons managed to score 24 against Duke. It’s not too much to expect NU to at least reach 10.

Max Gelman (Half-empty): The Wildcats are coming off a week in which they scored just seven points against an FCS defense and have only scored 28 points through their first two weeks. I find it hard to foresee a situation where NU manages to score more than 10 points.

While the special teams unit may be “due” to score some points, let’s not forget it also seems to hurt the Cats’ chances at scoring quite regularly. Kicker Jack Mitchell missed another field goal against the Redbirds last week and coach Pat Fitzgerald seemed extremely reluctant to try another field goal following the miss. If the Cats can’t kick, their drives will continue to stall around their opponents’ 35-40 yard lines.

But the biggest problem is NU’s offensive line — it’s a mess. Thorson was forced to throw 41 times against Illinois State, a career high, because the line couldn’t open any lanes for running back Justin Jackson (who is battling an injury). Until the O-Line improves, it will be extremely difficult for the Cats to put up 10 points.

2. Will the Cats keep Duke quarterback Daniel Jones to under 250 passing yards?

Gelman (Half-empty): Right now, the Cats’ secondary is a major concern. Starting cornerbacks Matthew Harris and Keith Watkins II are out, as well as safety Kyle Queiro, whose name popped up on the injury report out of nowhere.

Igwebuike is the only starter still healthy at this point. That leaves the rest of the secondary to be comprised of sophomore corner Montre Hartage, whose only two starts came in the first two weeks of this season filling in for Watkins II, redshirt freshman corner Trae Williams, who has never started a game before, and sophomore safety Jared McGee. The situation is so dire, that third-string quarterback and baseball pitcher Dan Kubiuk was taking reps at corner in practice this week.

What’s surprising about Duke is that Jones, as their backup quarterback, threw for 332 passing yards last week. Although that was against a bad Wake Forest team, it’s still cause for concern. The Cats’ secondary is at DEFCON 1 with all the injuries.

Balk (Half-full): Yes, with three out of its four projected opening week defensive back starters sidelined by injuries, the NU defensive secondary has to be a cause for concern at the moment. But, there’s plenty of reason to think NU will keep Duke to fewer than 250 passing yards. NU is giving up just a touch over 250 passing yards per game through two contests, but those numbers are inflated due to the fact that opponents have had far too many opportunities to sling it.

Opponents have dominated possession because of NU’s offensive trials and the lack of big defensive plays. So, naturally, they’ve picked up tons of yards. But the Cats’ front seven seemed to be finding its legs last week, even as the offense struggled through a nightmare. The progress is likely to continue against a Duke team with a subpar offensive line and a freshman quarterback.

Look for a strong performance from NU’s defensive line to keep Duke’s pass attack in check.

3. Over/Under 4.5 freshmen will trip while running onto the field?

Balk (Half-full): Obviously, you have to go under on this one. As far as I can recall, not a single freshmen tripped last year. The Class of 2019 was smooth and poised under pressure. And each class is supposed to be better, brighter (more athletic?) than the last, right?

Gelman (Half-empty): Almost everything else has gone wrong so far this year for the Cats, so why wouldn’t that extend to the Wildcat Welcome Dash? Under the bright lights of primetime, there will definitely be some jitters Saturday night. I can see about a dozen unlucky new students taking a fall while the Ryan Field crowd tries to hold in its laughter.

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 3

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 3
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

Northwestern’s once-vaunted defense struggled for the second consecutive week in a loss Saturday against Illinois State, and the Wildcats’ Week 3 depth chart for their upcoming contest against Duke reflects some changes coaches hope will jumpstart the lagging unit.

The most dramatic move comes on the defensive line. Senior CJ Robbins moves from defensive tackle to left defensive end after a strong showing in that role against the Redbirds, replacing incumbent senior Ifeadi Odenigbo in the starting lineup. Junior Xavier Washington will switch sides from left to right defensive end in order to accommodate the move, and sophomore Fred Wyatt will step up to fill Robbins’ former spot at defensive tackle.

Robbins shifted out to defensive end fairly early against Illinois State and didn’t look back, recording two tackles for loss and five tackles total. The 305-pounder doesn’t look like a traditional defensive end, but his move outside will bulk up a group which has struggled so far in short-yardage situations.

The defense has also adjusted for injuries at cornerback to senior starter Matthew Harris and backup redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo. Redshirt freshman Trae Williams will replace Harris, and true freshman Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock are now listed as the backups. Bullock has yet to appear in a game this season, reflecting the depletion of depth NU faces at the position.

Another true freshman will be stepping in at wide receiver. Ben Skowronek logged his first career catch against Illinois State, and has supplanted junior Marcus McShepard as a backup receiver. Listed at 6-foot-4, Skowronek is tied for being the tallest wideout on the roster and adds size to an otherwise small unit.

Through the Tape: Northwestern’s offensive line comes up short in run-blocking against Redbirds

by Max Schuman 0 Comments
Through the Tape: Northwestern’s offensive line comes up short in run-blocking against Redbirds
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

Despite sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson’s 41 passing attempts in the loss against Illinois State on Saturday, Northwestern is a run-first team.

The offense’s best player is junior running back Justin Jackson, and the Wildcats are right to try to build their offense around his abilities. But a runner can only be as good as the guys in front of him, and Saturday’s game against the Redbirds exposed serious issues along the offensive line that brought NU’s offense to its knees in the defeat.

A major staple of the Cats’ rushing attack is the outside zone play, a wide run where the offensive linemen, rather than blocking a specific player at the snap, move laterally and look for players to block in the zone around them as the play develops. Meanwhile, the running back runs outside until he sees a hole form, makes a cut upfield and accelerates through the crease. The keys to a good outside zone team are an athletic offensive line comfortable making blocks in space and a runner who has the vision and decisiveness to take advantage of the holes in front of him.

When it works, it can look brilliant — like Jackson’s 46-yard touchdown run against Western Michigan in Week 1.

Sophomore guard Tommy Doles (No. 71) moves well to his right on the play and gets enough of a Broncos linebacker to keep him out of the hole, while Western Michigan’s safety to that side of the field overpursues to the outside, leaving a big crease that Jackson exploits. It’s the quintessential outside zone run— using finesse and patience, waiting for the hole to emerge and cutting hard upfield when the opportunity arises.

On paper, NU’s offensive line seemed to have a major advantage against the undersized defensive front of Illinois State. But on the same outside zone plays that worked against Western Michigan, the Redbirds’ quickness seemed to be too much for the Cats’ bigger offensive line, who looked a step slow repeatedly and failed to establish this key weapon in NU’s arsenal.

Here’s an example early in the game of a missed block leading to penetration that killed the play before it started.

Sophomore left tackle Blake Hance (No. 72) is slow off the line and whiffs on a block of an Illinois State lineman at the line of scrimmage, leaving the pulling junior center Brad North (No. 69) to clean up the mess in the backfield. North can’t do much about it, forcing Jackson to hesitate and resulting in a loss on the play, but it was Hance’s inability to connect at the line that led to the stop.

Sometimes, the Cats’ linemen just weren’t quick enough to make the blocks they needed to, like the pulling Doles on this play.

Doles is unable to move quickly enough to his left to make the block on a Redbirds’ linebacker, who penetrates and picks up the stop at the line. That play put NU behind the sticks on the drive, and the Cats ultimately went three-and-out.

NU’s version of the outside zone play frequently asks its linemen to pull and act as lead blockers for the running back, as in the plays above. Even when the blocks are solid, that can leave the Cats susceptible to backside pursuit, like on this play.

A quick burst off the line from an Illinois State defensive tackle right into the space vacated by the pulling Doles gave that play no chance from the start.

The outside zone asks a lot of offensive linemen athletically and forces them to make some difficult decisions and blocks on the move, and against the Redbirds, NU’s offensive line wasn’t up to the task. With the Cats unable to find success with one of their bread-and-butter plays on early downs, they were forced to rely on the arm of Thorson, with predictably inconsistent results. And if the team struggled this much to establish the outside zone against an FCS opponent, doing so against Big Ten defenses could be an insurmountable task.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald hinted that some personnel changes could be in the works, although the starting offensive line was unchanged in Monday’s official depth chart. Beyond that, NU might be wise to consider changing up their game plan running the ball, mixing in some simple downhill plays to make the line’s job easier or some zone read carries by Thorson to slow down defensive pursuit.

Whatever the remedy, the Cats can’t keep going back to the outside zone if they can’t run it effectively. A run-first team that can’t run the ball generally loses, and NU found that out the hard way Saturday.

Advance Scouting: Duke

by Ben Pope 0 Comments
Advance Scouting: Duke
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

A week after a heartbreaking 9-7 loss to Illinois State, Northwestern will host their first night game of the season against Duke, another Power-5 conference team that was upset at home Saturday.

The Blue Devils dropped a 24-14 decision to Wake Forest in Durham after taking a 7-0 lead early, their first loss in the annual matchup since 2011. The game was largely decided on the ground, where Wake Forest out-rushed Duke 239-37.

The loss is a worrisome sign for a Duke team that has become a perennially strong team under coach David Cutcliffe after decades of mediocrity. The Blue Devils have gone to a bowl game four years in a row and went 8-5 with a Pinstripe Bowl win over Indiana in 2015, despite losing 19-10 to Northwestern early in the season.

The Cats will square off against Duke this year at perhaps a critical moment for both teams — NU attempting to right the ship after a disastrous start to the season, and Duke seeking to avoid a similar situation as the Cats.

Duke’s biggest strength: The pass defense that essentially shut down NU last season returns almost all of its key players — except for star safety Jeremy Cash, gone to the NFL — and has gotten off to a great start to 2016.

Duke held Clayton Thorson to just 70 yards and two interceptions on 9-of-23 passing last September, and only a Solomon Vault kick return touchdown and 55-yard Warren Long run got the Cats into the end zone.

The unit ultimately didn’t have the best of seasons — they ranked 81st in opponent pass efficiency — but they’ve looked much-improved through the first two weeks this autumn.

A group of four seniors (cornerbacks DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders and safeties Corbin McCarthy and Deondre Singleton) held FCS team N.C. Central to 7-of-25 passing for 74 yards and an interception, then Wake Forest to 9-of-16 passing for 150 yards and another interception.

Duke’s biggest weakness: The offensive and defensive lines have been an issue for Duke, as they have for NU.

The Blue Devils’ defensive front was destined for a rebuilding year: four of the top five tacklers from 2015 graduated, with only tackle A.J. Wolf returning. Wake Forest gashed the defense for 239 total yards, including a huge performance by running back Cade Carney, who carried 17 times for 108 yards (6.4 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns.

Of even greater concern has been the offensive line.

Duke managed only 37 yards on 30 carries against Wake Forest, and quarterback Daniel Jones was sacked five times. New starters Zach Baker and Austin Davis are struggling to develop chemistry with the rest of the unit.

This could be exactly the matchup that the Cats need to regain some confidence in their own lines, which senior guard Connor Mahoney said “got (their) butts kicked” against Illinois State.

Duke’s biggest question: Can redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones replace injured senior Thomas Sirk’s production and leadership?

The Blue Devils were dealt a tremendous blow before the season even started when Sirk, a senior, tore his Achilles for the third time in his collegiate career in practice and was ruled out for the season. Sirk lead the team in both passing and running last season.

Jones was sheltered in the opener against N.C. Central before being forced to throw it 48 times against Wake Forest, with some but not a ton of success. He also ran it 19 times for only a net of six yards, including sacks.

Duke isn’t a team with a robust crop of dangerous running backs, so multidimensional effectiveness from the quarterback position is necessary for their offense to function. The jury is still out on whether or not Jones can provide that.

Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 2

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 2
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Illinois State Redbirds.

1. Will Anthony Walker double his tackle output from Week 1?

Half-full (Max Gelman): After Saturday’s loss, both Walker and coach Pat Fitzgerald acknowledged that the All-American may have been trying to do too much on the field. Against an FCS team though, Walker will be sure to rebound from the paltry seven-tackle performance from Week One. This is Anthony Walker we’re talking about after all — the Anthony Walker who finished fourth in the nation last season and led the Big Ten with 20.5 tackles for loss. The Anthony Walker who led the Wildcats in tackles by more than 30. The Anthony Walker who may very well end up in the NFL next season. He will be sure to regain his elite form when he faces Illinois State.

Half-empty (Tim Balk): Anthony Walker and the linebacker corps came into the year with sky-high expectations, and mostly disappointed in the opening showdown against Western Michigan. Walker was oddly quiet, recording just seven tackles. The Franchise will respond — we haven’t seen many underwhelming performances from the junior in his time in Evanston — but a huge performance might not be in the cards against Illinois State. Walker only hit the 14 tackle mark three times last year, and he was particularly quiet in NU’s battle with FCS Eastern Illinois. Walker won’t disappear like he did in the second half against Western Michigan, but he also won’t have a repeat of the Duke game last September. Take the under on 14 tackles.

2. Will NU be able to keep Justin Jackson’s carry total under 30?

Half-empty (TB): With Warren Long sidelined by a broken hand, it’s going to be the Justin Jackson show for the next few weeks. Even more so than usual. The Cats’ passing game was quieted against Western Michigan, mainly because the offense was off the field for so much of the game, and Clayton Thorson should have more opportunities to throw the ball around this week. But NU will still call Jackson’s number plenty. If the Cats can get the no huddle offense going the way the want to, it’ll mean more plays, and, of course more touches for The Ball Carrier. So a big carry number might not be a totally bad sign. But don’t expect Jackson to get much rest.

Half-full (MG): The Cats’ offensive gameplan over the past few seasons with Jackson as starter has revolved around shoving him down opponents’ throats. Jackson finished third in the country in 2015 with 312 carries as NU eased then-redshirt freshman quarterback Thorson into a starting role. However, in last year’s sole matchup against an FCS opponent — Eastern Illinois — Jackson only ran the ball 22 times out of a total 69 rushing attempts, good for about 32 percent of the team’s total carries. Seven other Wildcats ran the ball against the Panthers last year, including walk-on Navy SEAL Tom Hruby who rushed eight times. NU will find plenty of opportunities to spread the work among the other running backs and give Jackson some rest.

3. How many turnovers will NU be able to force after failing to force any last week?

Half-full (MG): The Redbirds came into 2016 without their biggest playmakers from a year ago, quarterback Tre Roberson and running back Marshaun Coprich. This year, sophomore quarterback Jake Kolbe is leading Illinois State in his first year as a starter, and his inexperience may very well lead to multiple miscues on offense. Additionally, even though Illinois State loves to run the ball, as seven Redbirds combined for 313 rushing yards in its opening week 50-13 trouncing over Valparaiso, only two of their eight rostered running backs are upperclassmen. For NU, senior cornerback and team captain Matthew Harris performed well against Western Michigan receiver Corey Davis last week, and Harris led the Cats with four interceptions in 2015. Harris’ dominance, coupled with the relative inexperience of Illinois State’s new playmakers, will likely lead to at least two takeaways on Saturday.

Half-empty (TB): If there was one big takeaway from NU’s opener, it’s that the defensive line wasn’t quite ready for showtime. The exits of Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson represented significant losses, as the two disruptive defensive ends spearheaded a mighty defense with a knack for picking up sacks and forcing turnovers. Against Western Michigan, the defensive pressure was lackluster, and Western Michigan looked comfortable in racking up 416 yards without a single turnover. Junior defensive end Xavier Washington and senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo are by no means slouches, but NU’s opening week performance suggests it may take some time for the two, and whole defensive front, to get going. NU has big playmakers like Walker and Harris, but the Cats will likely need to get more pressure to start turning teams over. Meanwhile, Illinois State is a ground and pound team that ran for more than 3,000 yards last year. Look for the Redbirds keep it on the ground, limiting the chances for NU to get takeaways on Saturday. NU still has the potential to be a big takeaway team. But this might not be the week for such things.

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 2

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 2
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

Running back Warren Long and defensive tackle Jordan Thompson are the two big subtractions from Northwestern’s Week Two depth chart.

Long, a senior, injured his hand during his only carry against Western Michigan and has been ruled out for at least four weeks, coach Pat Fitzgerald said. Stepping up in Long’s place will be redshirt freshman John Moten IV, who made his college debut in the latter part of Saturday’s game but did not receive any touches.

Coming into the season, Long projected as a reliable backup who would lighten junior starter Justin Jackson’s workload. With Long out, Jackson will receive most, if not all, of the Wildcats’ carries. Moten, an unproven commodity, likely hasn’t gained the trust of the coaching staff and will probably come in only to spell Jackson on the occasional pass blocking assignment.

But don’t expect that to change the play calling of NU’s offense. This is still a run-first team — Jackson will just be getting a few more carries than he otherwise would with Long still healthy. Based on Jackson’s 312-carry 2015 campaign, that shouldn’t be much of a problem for him.

Thompson is day-to-day, Fitzgerald said, so there’s a chance he could play Saturday against Illinois State. Even if he doesn’t, the defense will still be in good shape. The Cats’ defensive line relies on a constant rotation of players. Losing Thompson’s talent hurts but the players stepping in for him have game experience and should be more than up to the task.

Through the Tape: Wildcats struggle for short-yardage stops against Western Michigan

Through the Tape: Wildcats struggle for short-yardage stops against Western Michigan
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

Coming from a traditionally ground-and-pound conference, Northwestern fans would be forgiven for wondering which team on the field Saturday was the true representative from the Big Ten — because in a lot of ways, Western Michigan looked the part.

The Broncos held the ball for more than 39 minutes and ran more than 30 more plays than the Wildcats did. And while the Western Michigan offense wasn’t gashing the NU defense in its time on the field — the Broncos averaged just 5.0 yards per play on the game — the Cats’ inability to produce short-yardage stops allowed Western Michigan to control the flow of the game.

On third- and fourth-downs with less than two yards to go, the Broncos converted seven of eight attempts, all on the ground. In the process, they exposed a defensive weakness for NU that could become a bigger story against the bruising rushing offenses of the Big Ten.

The first play highlighted here happened in the second quarter, with Western Michigan sitting at its 44-yard line and in the midst of a 19-play, 10-minute drive that would end in a field goal. The Broncos went with a power look on the play, using a fullback and extra blockers on the line.

Redshirt freshman lineman Joe Gaziano (No. 97) is the strong-side defensive end on this play and gets stymied by a double team, while sophomore linebacker Nate Hall (No. 32) gets pushed several yards back by Western Michigan’s motioning tight end to open a hole for Jamauri Bogan to hit for the first down. With a few of his teammates beat at the line, All-American linebacker Anthony Walker (No. 1) gets caught in the fray around him and is unable to flow to the gap and make the play at the line of scrimmage.

This next play happened in the third quarter, with Western Michigan going with the power look again while sitting at the Cats’ 33-yard line and working on another long drive that would end in a field goal.

On the spot again as the strong-side end, Gaziano gets blown away from the point of attack by a double team right at the snap. Meanwhile, Walker has clean space in front of him but misreads the play as going outside, stepping out of his gap only to be sealed by a block from Western Michigan’s fullback. Bogan bursts through the ensuing crease to easily get the first down.

The Broncos went back to the same play on the goal line in the fourth quarter to score what would end up the game-winning touchdown.

This time, it was the big senior lineman C.J. Robbins (No. 90), who has a good 40 lbs. on Gaziano, lined up as the strong-side defensive end and getting pushed off the spot. Junior safety Godwin Igwebuike (No. 16) fills the gap and has a chance to make the stop at the line, but he whiffs in the hole. Senior linebacker Jaylen Prater (No. 51) and Walker then combine to hit Bogan past the line of scrimmage, but they aren’t able to keep Bogan from powering into the end zone.

The common thread was the Cats’ inability to win at the line of scrimmage in these short-yardage situations, a troubling sign for a team attempting to replace defensive ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson from a season ago. Penetration from the defensive line is the key to stopping run plays before they start, and too often throughout the day NU got no push from its linemen at the point of attack. With physical power-running teams like Wisconsin and Iowa looming on the schedule, the Cats will need some players to emerge on the line as impact players if they want to hold up.

Without penetration up front, NU’s second level defenders needed to be perfect time and again to stop Western Michigan, and mistakes in the hole like the ones shown above from Walker and Igwebuike allowed the Broncos to convert on key short-yardage plays throughout the game. In particular, Walker often looked a beat slow in run defense, a far cry from the guy whose athleticism and instincts let him put up 20.5 tackles for loss last season.

The offense has the advantage on any one short-yardage play, of course, and even the vaunted Cats defense of last season struggled to stop opponents in those situations, allowing conversions on 78.0 percent of third- and fourth-down running plays with less than two yards to go — good for 116th out of 128 FBS teams. But with the potential for regression in other areas defensively, and in a close game where one timely short-yardage stop could have been the difference, the way mid-major Western Michigan pushed NU around has to make fans nervous for the season to come.

Advance Scouting: Illinois State

by Ben Pope 0 Comments
Advance Scouting: Illinois State
(Daily file photo by Keshia Johnson)

After a heartbreaking loss to up-and-coming Western Michigan, Northwestern must now look ahead to a matchup against another team that may well be the best in their conference.

Fortunately for the Cats, this time the conference in question is the FCS-level Missouri Valley Football Conference and not the FBS-level Mid-American Conference.

Illinois State (1-0) will roll into Evanston after a 10-3 campaign in 2015, tying for the MVFC regular-season title with a 7-1 conference record and ultimately advancing to the second round of the FCS playoffs, as well as a dominant season-opening win over Valparaiso on Saturday.

It’s still a likely win for NU, no doubt. FBS teams were 43-4 against FCS foes in college football’s opening weekend and the Cats won 41-0 last year against an Eastern Illinois team that Illinois State then beat only 34-31 the following week. (Illinois State did lose to Iowa by only a 31-14 score, however.)

Still, this matchup will likely be more difficult than coach Pat Fitzgerald expected when it was scheduled several years ago.

Last time out: Illinois State hammered Valparaiso 50-13 at home on Saturday to begin their season.

Valparaiso’s football program is perennially weak — they’re 9-69 dating back to 2009 and went 1-9 last year — but the Redbirds still had an impressive showing in the game, using seven different runners to rack up 271 rushing yards (compared to Valparaiso’s mere 22).

Biggest Strength: The offensive and defensive lines for Illinois State return a lot of experience from last year’s excellent squads.

The entire five-man offensive line unit started all 13 games last year and is back again in its entirety this season. Center Mark Spelman earned all-MVFC honors, while left guard Kyle Avaloy was second-team all-MVFC.

The group paved the way for the Redbirds to rank tied for fifth in the FCS in yards-per-rush attempt last year and could pose a major obstacle for the Cats, which struggled mightily to penetrate Western Michigan’s O-line and get pressure on quarterback Zach Terrell on Saturday.

On the other side of the ball, Illinois State also returns three defensive line starters from a defense that allowed only 21.2 points per game last year. Nose guard Dalton Keene and tackle Matt McCown are the leaders of a unit that isn’t particularly aggressive (not many sacks) but is hard to push downfield.

Biggest Weakness: The passing game remains a huge uncertainty for Illinois State after the graduation of two-time All-MVFC quarterback Tre Roberson.

Sophomore Jake Kolbe, a Naperville Central product, started for the first time in his career against Valparaiso and wasn’t tested much, completing 11 of 19 passes for 166 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Kolbe has a solid cast of receivers to work with — headliner Anthony Warrum’s 1,290 yards a year ago ranked third in school history and he was one of just four FCS receivers named to the CFPA National Performer of the Year Watch List for 2016 — but the passing attack will soon be facing an NU secondary unlike any they’ve seen before.

Biggest Question: Can Illinois State contain Justin Jackson?

Even in the Western Michigan loss, Jackson appeared to be in prime mid-season form, mixing his standard up-the-middle rushes with some explosive long plays that haven’t always been a big part of his game.

Against an FCS foe like Illinois State, Fitzgerald will likely look to keep the ball on the ground even more often, and Jackson will be a tough assignment for a Redbirds linebacking corps that the team’s own media guide describes as the “most thin” positional group.

Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 1

by Max Gelman 0 Comments
Half-N-Half: Optimistic and Pessimistic Outlooks for Week 1
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Western Michigan Broncos.

1. Clayton Thorson’s rushing touchdown in last year’s season opener against Stanford put him on the map. How will he perform in this year’s season opener?

Half-full (Tim Balk): If Trevor Siemian’s meteoric rise to starting QB of the Denver Broncos means Wildcats fans might have underappreciated Touchdown Trevor in his time in Evanston, Clayton Thorson certainly went undervalued as a redshirt freshman last fall. Sure, Thorson’s passing numbers were spotty, but with a weak receiving corps and a perpetually banged up offensive line, it’s hard to fault Thorson for NU’s oft-anemic pass offense. The fact remains, Thorson was a FRESHMAN, and he still led NU to 10 wins while showing flashes of brilliance on the ground and through the air. Expect a big leap from Thorson this year — the experience will pay dividends and an improved, healthy front will allow Thorson more time in the pocket. Expect it to start against Western Michigan, a team which gave up 250 or more passing yards nine times last year.

Half-empty (Max Gelman): Thorson was not a great quarterback last season, there’s no way around it. He completed just over 50 percent of his passes, and while he was a redshirt freshman, he would need to improve a lot in order to be considered good. His receivers, aside from Dan Vitale, did him almost no favors and this year the Cats’ No. 1 receiver — senior Austin Carr — is basically at the top of the depth chart by default. I also don’t totally buy the “10 wins” argument because the Cats only outscored their opponents by 12 points all season. In its three losses, NU was outscored 123-16 — that’s over 100 points! Western Michigan’s run defense isn’t very good, so if Thorson can make plays with his legs I think he’ll be OK in the opener, but regardless I don’t think he’ll throw for more than 150 yards through the air.

2. Will the Wildcats play well enough against a non-conference opponent that they can rest their starters in the fourth quarter?

Half-empty (MG): The formula for the Cats in 2015 was to win low-scoring games with their defense. Last year, NU scored more than 30 just once — an easy, 41-0 blowout of Eastern Illinois. Other than that, the Cats never really got a chance to rest their starters. Even late in the season when his team went up 21-7 against Illinois in the second quarter, coach Pat Fitzgerald took his foot off the gas pedal after halftime. Justin Jackson was still toting the rock, Thorson was still throwing the ball and NU only won the game 24-14. Western Michigan is also too good of a team for the Cats’ offense to run up the score, so I think we’ll still see all the starters right until the clock reaches zero.

Half-full (TB): NU is going to put up some points on the Broncos. Western Michigan’s spotty defensive front will receive a gnashing early from Jackson, and Thorson should have a fun day going over the top of of one of the MAC’s worst secondaries. The Broncos will try to keep pace with their dynamic offense, but it won’t be easy against a stellar NU defense which brings back some key pieces from a group that shut down Stanford a year ago. NU has tended to come out of the gate fresh and ready under Fitzgerald (the 2014 trainwreck against Cal notwithstanding), and there’s little reason to expect anything different in 2016. Western Michigan is not terrible, and won’t go down without a fight, but come the fourth quarter NU will have a lead wide enough to give its first units a late game break.

3. How full will Ryan Field be with classes not scheduled to start until Sept. 20?

Half-full (TB): I’m supposed to be good cop here, but it gets harder with this question. Ryan Field tends to be a graveyard in September and crowds in excess of 30,000 represent relative successes before Big Ten play kicks off. There’s reason to think the turnout could clear that benchmark against Western Michigan. Fresh off a top 25 finish, excitement is up a bit in Evanston, and the weather Saturday afternoon is expected to be beautiful. Perfect weather and some good, clean, American fun! Why not?

Half-empty (MG): Fitzgerald has lamented in the past about the atmosphere at Ryan Field before students show up, and I think he’ll have good reason to do so again Saturday. NU struggles to draw large crowds before conference play starts, and it’s not just because of the student section. A home stadium that seats fewer fans than any other Big Ten program and a smaller alumni base than the large, public Big Ten schools are just a couple reasons why I believe Ryan Field will only be about 50 to 60 percent full for Week 1. (And even when the Big Ten schedule rolls around it doesn’t get much better — the Cats are basically playing a road game whenever Nebraska visits Evanston.)

Advance Scouting: Western Michigan

Advance Scouting: Western Michigan
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Each week, The Daily will take an early look at Northwestern’s opponent, breaking down the biggest facets of the game. Up first is the Wildcats’ Week 1 opponent, Western Michigan.

The last (and only) time Western Michigan traveled to Northwestern — Sept. 14, 2013 — coach P.J. Fleck had just inherited a basement-of-the-MAC team that was no match for the Wildcats, losing 38-17, and eventually went 1-11 on the season.

The Broncos’ trip to Evanston this Saturday has a much different feel.

Since that rough 2013 campaign, Fleck has led Western Michigan to back-to-back 8-5 seasons and returns all of the weapons in an offense that was one of the most explosive in the country last season. Senior receiver Corey Davis is projected to be the first WR off the board in next spring’s NFL draft and the Broncos enter the season as the favorite to win their first-ever MAC title.

The Cats will have their hands full with upset-minded Western Michigan in this weekend’s season opener. Below is a more detailed scouting report on the Broncos’ most pressing strength, weakness and question mark.

Biggest Strength: Entire offense

The combination of senior quarterback Zach Terrell and receiver Corey Davis forms the backbone of the Broncos’ offense and will provide a big test for NU’s “Sky Team” secondary.

Terrell completed 67 percent of his passes for 29 touchdowns vs. nine interceptions last season, ranking 8th in FBS in yards per attempt (Clayton Thorson, by comparison, was 118th).

And although he loses his top volume receiver in Daniel Braverman, he’ll still have Davis, and that could be all he and the Broncos need.

The 6’3”, 215-pound receiver has reportedly bulked up in the offseason after a 1,436-yard season in 2015, averaging more than 10 yards each time he was targeted and more than 130 yards per game over the latter half of the season.

While NU cornerbacks Matthew Harris and thrust-into-action Montre Hartage are challenged by Terrell and Davis, the Broncos could be able to take advantage of the relatively sparse box with a multi-headed rushing attack.

Western Michigan was actually nearly as good of a running team (30th in the nation) as a passing team (27th) last season and did so with a three-speared attack composed of a sophomore and two freshman, all of whom return. They can attack NU’s rush defense in every way with 6’1, 228-pound wrecking ball Jarvion Franklin charging up the middle and undersized scatbacks Jamauri Bogan (1,051 yards, 16 touchdowns last year) and LeVante Bellamy racing for the edges.

Biggest weakness: Rush defense

Western Michigan’s most gaping hole just happens to align perfectly with NU’s most definite strength, which will provide a much-needed target for the Cats to exploit Saturday.

The Broncos’ rush defense allowed 5.3 yards per carry in 2015, ranking 117th among 128 FBS teams. Their linebacking corps fluctuated wildly week to week last season, as no combination seemed able to consistently stop the run. Additionally, five of the top eight tacklers (excluding the secondary) graduated in the offseason.

Indeed, in their losses last year, it was opponent’s rush games that most frequently burned them.

Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott rumbled for 124 yards on 16 carries in a 38-12 rout; Georgia Southern racked up a whopping 413 team rush yards in their 43-17 win; Northern Illinois’ Jordan Huff ripped off 159 yards on just eight carries against the Broncos; even Eastern Michigan, which ranked 85th in rushing offense for the season, recorded 226 yards on the ground against the Broncos.

Justin Jackson, Warren Long and even scrambling-minded Clayton Thorson should be excited for this matchup.

Biggest question: Can Broncos handle Big Ten-level play?

Western Michigan is no stranger to Big Ten teams — it faced two great ones last year (Michigan State and Ohio State) and has played 14 games against the Big Ten over the past seven years, including bowl games  — but the team is a stranger to success in those matchups: Western Michigan lost all 14 of those games.

Since beating Illinois 23-17 in late 2008, the Broncos have been occasionally competitive, but never the victors, against their “big brother” Midwest conference. If this year’s loaded team is to prove it’s a different Western Michigan than in the past, it will need to break that slump by beating Northwestern.

The national ESPNU cameras will be there, the media has jumped on board their bandwagon and even the betting lines (NU minus-5) are remarkably close — but can the Broncos live up to the hype?