First it was junior safety Godwin Igwebuike, tweeting “Thanks for the int,” before the Duke game in September and following through with an interception.
Then it was sophomore safety Jared McGee, taking to Instagram to call his shot before the Michigan State game and then picking off Spartan quarterback Tyler O’Connor in the fourth quarter.
This week against Indiana, junior Kyle Queiro is trying his luck. Last night, the safety tweeted “Thanks for the INT.” Queiro is wearing a cast on his left hand today, which might make keeping the streak alive more difficult.
UPDATE (2:20 p.m.): Kyle Queiro’s tweet seems to have worked. In the fourth quarter, the safety leapt up with one hand and picked off a pass from Indiana quarterback Richard Lagow. Check out the video below.
On a week-by-week basis, Northwestern and Indiana have been complete opposites this season.
The Wildcats (3-3, 2-1 Big Ten) have lost, lost, won, lost, won and won. The Hoosiers (3-3, 1-2) have won, won, lost, won, lost and lost.
But even polar opposite first halves of their respective regular seasons have brought the two Big Ten foes to the same point — 3 wins, 3 losses — with potential to break out as solid teams in the second half.
A mere 1.5-point spread separates the two teams entering this Saturday’s homecoming matchup in Evanston, when Indiana will seek to end a four-game losing streak against NU that dates back to 2009.
Indiana’s biggest strength: Its defense. Under the eye of new defensive coordinator Tom Allen, the Hoosiers’ defense has been one of the biggest surprises of the Big Ten this season, moving from 121st in the nation last season to 49th this season.
Although the team lost its last two games, both against elite opponents — 38-17 vs. No. 2 Ohio State, then 27-22 vs. No. 8 Nebraska this past weekend — its defense recorded arguably its best two performances yet. The unit allowed just 19 completions combined for Heisman Trophy candidates J.T. Barrett (9-for-21 for 93 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception vs. Indiana) and Tommy Armstrong (10-for-26, 208 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions).
Led by linebacker Tegray Scales, who ranks fifth in the country in solo tackles, and cornerback Rashard Fant, who ranks third in the country with 10 pass breakups, the Indiana defense is improving with each week and will pose a stiff challenge for Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson and Austin Carr.
Indiana’s biggest weakness: The offensive side of the ball, long the staple of Indiana football, has faded almost as quickly as its defense has risen.
The offensive line lost four starters from last season and has struggled in the big, physical trench battles of the Big Ten. That’s hurting the Hoosiers’ run game, as former 1,000-yard running back Devine Redding has begun to slow down (135 yards in the last two games vs. 245 in the first two) and the Hoosiers have sorted through a half-dozen other runners without finding anyone particularly effective.
Meanwhile, first-year starting quarterback Richard Lagow has proven interception-prone: he’s tossed nine picks in his last four games, including five in an ugly 33-28 home loss to Wake Forest on Sept. 24. Lagow does, however, still rank second in the conference in passing yards to date.
Indiana’s biggest question mark: Can the Hoosiers take advantage of their steady improvement and soft second-half schedule to jump into the Big Ten’s upper echelon?
A long, bleak period of Hoosier football — which includes just one winning season (a 7-6 campaign in 2007) in the last 21 years — appears to be on the verge of giving way to a much brighter era.
Indiana stands at .500 with just one more tough game (at Michigan), should-win games against Maryland, Rutgers and Purdue and could-win games against NU and Penn State comprising the rest of its remaining schedule. A strong closing stretch, starting with a win in what should be a well-matched showdown on Saturday against the Cats, could launch the Hoosiers into unprecedented realms of success.
But will Indiana be able to overcome its lack of experience and capitalize on the opportunity to change the reputation of the program moving forward?
When Northwestern last traveled to East Lansing, Michigan — Nov. 17, 2012 — the Wildcats encountered a Michigan State team struggling due to poor play at the quarterback position.
Despite touting future NFL star Le’Veon Bell at running back, the Spartans were hampered by quarterback Andrew Maxwell, who completed just 22-of-46 passes for two touchdowns and two interceptions that day as NU emerged with a 23-20 victory.
Two games later, Michigan State made the bold decision to switch to backup Connor Cook midway through their bowl game. They rallied to beat TCU and then rode Cook to a 13-1 record the following season, including a 30-6 romp over the Cats in Evanston — the two teams’ most recent overall meeting.
Now, with NU returning to East Lansing Saturday, the Spartans (2-3, 0-2 Big Ten) find themselves in a similar situation to 2012.
The defending conference champions have lost three consecutive games for the first time since 2009: a 30-6 loss to No. 8 Wisconsin, a 24-21 overtime loss at Indiana and then a demoralizing 31-14 defeat at home against BYU last week. Quarterback Tyler O’Connor has faltered recently, and coach Mark Dantonio has hinted about upcoming personnel changes.
All of that in mind, the Cats will seek to exploit a historically strong program that finds itself at its weakest point in years.
Michigan State’s biggest strengths: In the standard Big Ten mold, Michigan State is effective running the ball and stingy against the run.
The Spartans have allowed just 3.6 yards per carry this season, good for 32nd in the nation — nothing new for a team that has finished each of the past five seasons ranked in the top 25 in the category. They’ve managed only 16 tackles for loss this season, excluding sacks, but have also surrendered few lengthy runs, keeping opponent running backs consistently near the line of scrimmage.
On the offensive side of the ball, running back L.J. Scott proved a reliable, smashmouth runner during his 2015 freshman campaign, which he finished with a career-high 22 carries in the Big Ten Championship Game. Gerald Holmes also had his share of big performances, including a 117-yard explosion against Nebraska.
This fall, Scott racked up 203 total yards in Michigan State’s season-opening wins against Furman and Notre Dame combined, but he has struggled since and was out-touched 15-3 by Holmes against BYU. The Spartans will likely hit NU with a steady dose of the two runners.
Michigan State’s biggest weakness: Michigan State’s vaunted defensive line, featuring projected first-round pick Malik McDowell, has produced a mere five sacks in five games (the Cats, by comparison, have 12) — and zero in the last two games.
BYU quarterback Taysom Hill not only avoided sacks but also scrambled for 47 yards and a touchdown.
Third downs have been an issue on both sides of the ball, as well.
Indiana and BYU were both above 50 percent on third-down conversion rate against the Spartans’ defense — 9-for-16 and 10-for-16, respectively. Meanwhile, Michigan State has converted only 33 percent of its own third down situations in the last three games; that would rank 112th in the country on its own and has dropped the team’s season average (38.6 percent) to 73rd.
Michigan State’s biggest question mark: The team’s quarterback controversy has dominated storylines in East Lansing over the past several days.
Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor first showed cracks against Wisconsin, completing only 18-of-38 passes for zero touchdowns and three interceptions, and then was benched in favor of junior Damion Terry during the BYU loss. Freshman and former highly-touted recruit Brian Lewerke — who has only four career pass attempts — is also in the mix.
Dantonio has avoided commenting on the situation and no starter has yet been announced for this coming weekend. Inexperienced NU cornerbacks Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo could have an easier-than-usual matchup against whichever signal caller they face.
During Saturday’s game at Iowa, junior linebacker Brett Walsh was carted off the field after an injury suffered during a kickoff return in the third quarter.
Walsh was laying motionless on the field following the play, and trainers removed his jersey and pads before lifting him onto the cart. He gave a thumbs up to the crowd as he was carted off the field following a lengthy delay.
UPDATE (1:36 p.m.): Walsh was taken to a hospital across the street from Kinnick Stadium. He was fully conscious and moving all extremities, according to the team’s official Twitter.
UPDATE (3:00 p.m.): Coach Pat Fitzgerald concluded his post-game press conference saying that all of Walsh’s tests were negative and he will likely be returning to Evanston tonight, though not with the team.
Northwestern will hit the road on Saturday for the first time this season against an Iowa team that hammered the Wildcats (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) each of the last two meetings.
The Hawkeyes throttled NU 48-7 in Iowa City in 2014 before spoiling Evanston’s 2015 homecoming with a 40-10 win last year en route to an undefeated regular season.
Iowa (3-1, 1-0) has shown more signs of weakness this fall, however, falling to FCS powerhouse North Dakota State 23-21 two weeks ago — the Hawkeyes’ first home loss since November 2014 — before narrowly edging Big Ten bottom-dweller Rutgers 14-7 last week.
The running game on both sides of the ball generally tends to determine the course of Iowa’s games, and this week’s matchup against the Cats — despite offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s newfound affinity for passing plays — is likely to be more of the game.
Iowa’s biggest strength: Iowa running back Akrum Wadley always comes to play against Northwestern.
Wadley rumbled for 106 yards and a touchdown in his first 15 career touches against NU in 2014, then replaced star rusher Jordan Canzeri, who was injured early on in the 2015 meeting, and ripped off 26 carries for 204 yards and four touchdowns.
Wadley is still working in a time-share with fellow running back LeShun Daniels this season — Daniels has 52 carries to Wadley’s 37 to date — but Wadley is more involved in the passing game, has been more efficient with his touches (7.4 vs. 5.8 yards per carry) and was the team’s leading rusher on Saturday against Rutgers.
If history is any indication, the junior from New Jersey could pose a massive threat to the Cats this weekend.
Iowa’s biggest weakness: The rushing defense has struggled almost as much as the rushing offense has excelled for the Hawkeyes.
North Dakota State relied almost exclusively on the run in their upset win, rushing 49 times to 19 pass attempts and racking up 239 yards on the ground, before Rutgers pounded out an additional 193 yards on the ground the following week. Iowa now ranks 86th in the nation in rush defense.
The onus to fix those problems falls most squarely on star linebacker Josey Jewell, whose tackling production has stayed about even with last year, and defensive end Parker Hesse, who has been very quiet. Keeping Jewell and Hesse blocked consistently will be crucial for NU.
Biggest question: Which team will have more success on critical third downs?
Neither the Cats nor the Hawkeyes have done well in third-down situations this season: Iowa ranks 83rd with a 37.2 percent efficiency rate, while NU is just behind in 89th at 36.1 percent.
The two foes’ similar struggles in that regard have led, as would be expected, to issues in controlling the ball: both teams have recorded over 30 minutes of possession just once in four games each.
Whichever offense can keep drives moving and control the clock seems likely to prevail come Saturday.
Northwestern just didn’t have enough on Saturday night.
Its offense struggled with efficiency, its defense struggled to get off the field, and No. 20 Nebraska’s offense, led by senior quarterback Tommy Armstrong, Jr., put up 556 total yards in a 24-13 Wildcats defeat.
The game started with a strange play on the Cornhuskers’ first drive, as Nebraska running back Terrell Newby broke free for a 49-yard run but fumbled the ball as he dove untouched for a touchdown. The ball rolled out of the back of the end zone, resulting in a touchback and NU possession.
The Cornhuskers eventually drew first blood, however, after nailing a 23-yard field goal to take a 3-0 opening lead early in the second. The Cats struck back, though, when Thorson got to the edge on a designed quarterback run and turned on the afterburners on a 42-yard touchdown to give NU a 7-3 lead.
That lead stood briefly after a goal-line stand ended with junior safety Godwin Igwebuike ripping the ball away from Nebraska running back Devine Ozigbo and the Cats recovering the fumble. But on the ensuing drive, the Cornhuskers finally broke through for a touchdown after a 59-yard reception by receiver Alonzo Moore set up a short Newby run for six. NU had a chance to tie with a 40-yard field goal at the end of the half but instead chose to attempt a fake, which was unsuccessful.
The Cats got the ball to start the second half, but a Thorson interception on a throw to the end zone stopped a promising drive. Nebraska marched back down the field on the next drive, and Armstrong hit on a four-yard touchdown pass to Cethan Carter on third down to take a 17-7 lead.
NU responded quickly, with Thorson hitting senior wideout Austin Carr for a 24-yard touchdown, but senior kicker Jack Mitchell missed the extra point, leaving the score at 17-13. Mitchell continued his nightmare start to the season after a missed field goal in the first quarter.
From there, Nebraska controlled the game, constantly finding holes in the Cats’ defense through the air and wearing it down on the ground. An end-around touchdown by receiver Jordan Westerkamp late in the third quarter gave Nebraska an insurmountable lead, as NU’s offense couldn’t find a way to score for the rest of the game.
Stats to know
Thorson: 24-for-37, one touchdown, two interceptions; 10 carries for 43 yards and one touchdown.
Justin Jackson: 20 carries for 79 yards
Austin Carr: Career-high eight catches for 109 yards and one touchdown; 392 yards for the season is more than any NU receiver had in 2015
Igwebuike: 15 tackles, forced fumble
Mitchell: 0-for-1 on field goals, 1-for-2 on extra points; now 1-for-4 on field goals for the season.
Armstrong: 246 yards passing with one touchdown, 132 yards rushing
Each week, two Daily writers will debate the upcoming football matchup. One will take a glass half-full view and the other glass half-empty. Here is the Half-N-Half for Northwestern’s contest against the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
1. Will Justin Jackson run for more than 100 yards?
Max Gelman (half-full): Jackson has an excellent chance to break the century mark against the Cornhuskers. Though he only tallied 40 rushing yards at Nebraska last season, Jackson is still the elite running back we all know him to be.
Last week against the Blue Devils, Jackson had nearly 70 rushing yards in the first quarter as the Wildcats opened the game with a near-perfect drive. That has been a common theme for NU throughout the first three games — good opening drives and then a faltering offense. I don’t believe the offensive line troubles will last the whole season and if the line improves, which should be the case going forward, then Jackson should reach 100 again this week.
Tim Balk (half-empty): With the exception of a three-game lull in the middle of the season, Justin Jackson was almost a lock to hit triple digit rushing yards each week in 2015. Through three games this year, those days seem to be over.
Jackson missed the mark for the second straight week against Duke in Week 3, as offensive line problems continued to dog NU. With those problems unresolved, and the Cats’ offense forced to lean pass-heavy, it’s hard to imagine Jackson putting up big numbers against Nebraska, particularly in light of the fact that the Cornhusker defense was one of three — along with Michigan and Iowa — that managed to shut down “The Ball Carrier” during his mid-season slump last fall.
Against a quality defense that will gameplan for the run, it’s unlikely Jackson will be a major factor.
2. Will the Cats out-possess Nebraska?
Balk (half-empty): This one is easy.
Nebraska has out-possessed all three of its opponents. NU has been out-possessed by two of its three. Nebraska managed to chew up clock against Oregon. The Wildcats’ offense struggled to stay on the field against an FCS team. You get the picture.
NU can beat Nebraska even without controlling possession if the defense bends more than it breaks, and the big offensive plays that materialized against Duke keep on coming. But, more than likely, Nebraska’s multidimensional offense will spend a majority of the night on the field.
Gelman (half-full): In order for NU to beat the Cornhuskers, it will need to sustain lengthy drives and keep the defense on the field. With the recent play of sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, that will be entirely possible.
In the first three games of the season, Thorson has averaged 6.9 yards per attempt — not overwhelming by any standard but enough to get the job done. He spread the ball around beautifully, completing passes to eight different receivers, and has the deep ball working. It would be a shock if Thorson can’t move the Cats down the field against Nebraska.
Furthermore, NU currently has the second-best punter in the Big Ten in Hunter Niswander. Pinning the Cornhuskers within their own 20 repeatedly will be key to a Wildcat win.
3. Will Hunter Niswander punt like it’s the Western Michigan game…or the Duke game?
Gelman (half-full): I am all in on the Niswander for Heisman campaign.
After finishing 2015 with the most punts in the Big Ten but the lowest average yards, Niswander has vastly improved his game so far this year. NU and Nebraska always manage to play close games, and Niswander’s punting could play a huge role if this game turns into a battle of field position.
Against Western Michigan, Niswander averaged 51 yards per punt, easily the highest of his career. All he has to do to continue that progress is get a nice stretch before the game, and he should be golden.
Balk (half-empty): Max has taken to tweeting #Heiswander after punts from the junior punter. And, at least so far, it hasn’t been good luck. After kicking the leather off the ball on each of his three punts Week 1, Niswander has come back to earth. Against Duke he managed a respectable but unspectacular 42.9 yards per punt and lofted two into the end zone for touchbacks.
Which is not all that surprising, because Niswander appears to have developed into a respectable but unspectacular punter. That’s still good news for NU, which has struggled in the punting game in the past; Niswander will likely have to punt plenty this week. But it’s more likely he’ll be solid than Ray Guy worthy.
Last year’s Northwestern offense was undeniably punchless, something that needed to change coming into 2016.
In particular, big plays in the passing game were particularly hard to come by last season. The Wildcats’ offense, led by then-first-year quarterback starter Clayton Thorson, rarely put together explosive plays through the air. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has mentioned in multiple press conferences this season that taking more shots downfield is a big part of the team’s plan in 2016.
It took a few weeks for that vision to materialize, but Saturday’s game against Duke might have marked the arrival of the big-play passing attack Fitzgerald is looking for. NU had just 12 pass plays go for 25 yards or more last season. It had five such plays against Duke, including all three of the Cats’ touchdowns.
A lot of pieces need to come together to make a big play happen. The offensive line needs to hold the pocket together long enough for the play to develop, the receiver on the other end needs to get open and the quarterback needs to throw the ball accurately and on-time down the field. Too often last season, one of those components failed, but on NU’s first touchdown of the night against the Blue Devils, everything went according to plan.
The Cats’ offensive line, much maligned following the loss to Illinois State, keeps a clean pocket for Thorson (No. 18) on the play. Junior superback Garrett Dickerson (No. 9) uses a nice burst to get open in the seam, and Thorson hits on the throw for a 26-yard score.
Duke frequently sent blitzers from all over the field to get after Thorson, leaving its secondary stretched thin on some plays. Last season, against heavy pressure, Thorson rarely looked to make the defense pay downfield. But on this play, he stands tall in the pocket and delivers a 44-yard strike with a free rusher bearing down on him.
Junior wideout Solomon Vault (No. 4) is on the receiving end of this touchdown after beating the Blue Devils’ coverage over the top. The kick return specialist adds a speed element on the outside that NU was missing last season, and on this play he demonstrates his potential as a vertical threat taking the top off the defense.
Sometimes, a good design for the defense you face can manufacture a big play, like on the Cats’ final touchdown play in the fourth quarter.
Duke brought the house, rushing seven men and leaving only four back in coverage. NU counters by running crossing routes with senior receiver Austin Carr (No. 80) and sophomore receiver Flynn Nagel (No. 2) from the slot at the top of the screen, hoping to confuse the few defenders left to cover on the play and create an opening. The Blue Devils oblige, as two defenders move towards Nagel, leaving Carr wide open for an easy 58-yard touchdown.
These plays demonstrate a big-play ability through the air that was simply lacking last season. For a few plays Saturday night, the offensive line held up just long enough. Receivers, either through personal talent or smart play design, got open. And Thorson embraced Duke’s pressure and stood tall to make throws down the field.
The passing offense wasn’t perfect by any means, and neither was Thorson, who went just 18-for-39 and threw two picks on the night. But hitting on big plays gives the Cats a margin for error they didn’t have a year ago, and with the defense appearing to be rounding into form, that might be enough to surprise the rest of the way.
Northwestern’s kick return unit electrified fans in 2015, with then-sophomore Solomon Vault taking twokicks to the house in two especially high-leverage moments.
But the Wildcats punt return unit failed to offer any kind of balance. The combination of then-freshman Flynn Nagel and then-senior Miles Shuler ran back just 13 punts all year, ranking 10th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten. All too often NU’s punt returners wouldn’t even field the ball, letting it bounce for a few extra yards instead calling for a fair catch.
Nagel changed that Saturday against Duke by running back five punts, the most in a game for the Cats over at least the past nine seasons. He didn’t bust a long one, but Nagel’s returns were consistently positive. That he was trying to return them at all was a welcome sight to many fans.
“Our guys always have a green light,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I can’t jump in their heads and say, ‘catch it and run.’ … But we tell the guys to be aggressive, we tell them to err on the side of being aggressive and catching them.”
Nagel has clearly taken that to heart, and his assertiveness in fielding punts Saturday brought back memories of NU’s best punt returner in recent memory: Venric Mark.
A dynamic running back in his own right, Mark truly shined when he dropped back deep to field a punt. After his junior season in 2012, Mark received first-team All-America honors as a return specialist thanks to the two punts he returned for scores that year.
When Mark got ready to field a punt, everybody in the stadium held their breath in anticipation. Nagel has yet to bust a long return and doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear, but that he tries at least offers some hope.
“This week, I think we just had a lot of guys doing a good job blocking their guy, so it gave me a little bit of time back there,” Nagel said of his performance. “As long as everybody keeps doing their job I’m going to try to keep being aggressive.”
That aggressiveness, Fitzgerald said, is key to being a “dude” — somebody like Mark who can make defenders miss and turn nothing into something on a punt return. Nagel obviously isn’t at that level yet, but Fitzgerald seems encouraged by the early returns.
“He was pretty fearless on Saturday,” Fitzgerald said. “It was pretty cool.”