Northwestern’s 0-0 double overtime tie against then-No. 3 Indiana was certainly surprising, given the Wildcats’ difficult start to the season, and the goalkeeper who oversaw the shutout received some conference recognition as a result.
Redshirt freshman goalkeeper Robbie White was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after making six saves in Sunday’s game against the Hoosiers, the Big Ten announced Tuesday.
In his first career start for NU, White faced 28 shots and constant pressure from a strong Indiana attack, but he managed to stand tall and make the saves needed when called upon to break the Cats’ five-game losing streak. White is the first NU player to win Defensive Player of the Week since now-graduated goalkeeper Zak Allen won the award in Oct. 2015.
It’s bittersweet news for the young keeper, as the Cats announced today that White will undergo surgery for a lower extremity injury he suffered in the late stages of the game and is expected to miss eight to ten weeks as a result. Nevertheless, White’s auspicious start leaves hope that he can solidify NU’s goalkeeper position in the future.
After opening the season with a pair of unexpected, narrow losses, NU rebounded under the lights Saturday against Duke, winning 24-13 at Ryan Field.
The Cats benefited from an improved performance from its offensive line, which opened up enough holes to allow junior running back Justin Jackson to carve out 94 rushing yards, and provided solid pass protection for sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who set a career-high with 320 passing yards.
The Cats set the tone for the win with a quick 10-play, 75 yard drive to open the game. Thorson ended the drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to junior superback Garrett Dickerson. After the first drive, though, the Cats’ offense stalled for the remainder of the half, with a late drive ending in a missed 34-yard field goal. The Cats headed to the locker room locked in a 7-7 tie.
Duke threatened to score on its opening drive of the second half, but an Anthony Walker forced fumble snuffed out the drive at NU’s 21 yard line.
Later in the quarter, a botched punt snap gave the Cats offense the ball at the 44-yard line. NU struck on one play as Clayton Thorson connected with junior Solomon Vault for a 44-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cats a 14-7 lead they would not surrender.
NU extended its lead to 17-7 with a 40-yard field goal from Jack Mitchell with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.
Clayton Thorson connected with senior Austin Carr for a 58-yard touchdown pass with 4:56 left in the contest, further padding the Cats’ lead. Carr finished with six catches for a career-high 135 yards.
Duke would add a touchdown in garbage time on a one-yard run from Shaun Wilson, but the Blue Devils missed the extra point, giving the game its final score.
NU finishes its three game non-conference having won just one of its three contests before Big Ten play.
Northwestern stats to know:
Justin Jackson: 28 carries for 94 rushing yards; 3.4 yards per carry.
Clayton Thorson: 18-of-39, career-high 320 passing yards. Tied a career-high with three passing TDs. Threw two interceptions.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Football writers Max Gelman, Tim Balk and Max Schuman discuss Northwestern’s disappointing loss to Illinois State and what the team needs to do to improve against a struggling Duke team. Click below to listen.
Senior cornerback Matthew Harris is expected to miss Saturday’s game against Duke, coach Pat Fitzgerald said at Monday’s press conference.
Harris suffered an upper-body injury while covering a kickoff in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game against Illinois State. He walked off the field and into the locker room with the help of trainers and was ruled out for the remainder of the game shortly afterwards
Losing Harris for any amount of time is a big blow for Northwestern, as the captain is a major part of a banged-up Wildcats’ secondary and was named to the All-Big Ten third team after his work last season. Redshirt freshman cornerback Trae Williams took over after Harris’ injury Saturday and will likely be asked to fill in until he returns.
Williams and sophomore Montre Hartage are listed on the Week 3 depth chart as NU’s starters, and true freshmen Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock are backups. Redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo, who saw some playing time against Illinois State but also left with an injury, did not appear on the Week 3 two-deep.