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.
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.
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.
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.
Northwestern found itself in a slugfest with Western Michigan, as a retooled NU defense struggled to keep one of the MAC’s most dynamic offenses off the field, and a late goal line fumble from NU sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson sealed the Cats’ fate in a 22-21 home loss.
Western Michigan controlled the ball for much of the day, finishing with 39:04 time of possession. The Broncos held the ball for most of the second quarter during a 19-play, 10:08 drive that ended in a field goal, and later seemed to break the back of the NU defense with a quick six play, 72-yard touchdown drive that gave Western Michigan a 13-7 to start the second half.
But, after the two teams traded three-and-outs, Justin Jackson raced 46 yards a few minutes later to push NU back into the lead. Western Michigan responded with another long drive, covering 63 yards on 16 plays before kicking a field goal in the final seconds of the third quarter.
Again, Jackson and the Cats’ offense responded. With a drive highlighted by a 37 pitch-and-catch from Thorson to Jackson and punctuated by a one-yard touchdown run from Jackson, the Cats took a 21-16 lead.
Once more, Western Michigan responded with a long scoring drive. The Broncos went 75 yards on 12 plays, eventually arriving in the end zone to take a 22-21 lead with 5:38 left in the game.
NU looked poised to respond minutes later, as the Cats slung their way to the goal line, but Thorson’s fumble on the goal line was recovered by Western Michigan in the end zone.
Western Michigan ran out the clock to win the game, continuing to show an ability to stay on the field with third down conversions with 2:45 and 1:13 left on the clock.
A big day from Justin Jackson was wasted in the defeat. Jackson scored a career high three touchdowns.
It was Western Michigan’s first win over a Big Ten team since 2008.
Northwestern stats to know:
Justin Jackson: 23 carries for 129 yards, 3 rushing touchdowns; 2 receptions for 47 yards
Clayton Thorson: 15-for-22 with 196 passing yards, 5 carries for -8 yards
Brett Walsh: First career sack
Warren Long: OUT with an upper body injury
Hunter Niswander: 3 punts for an average of 51 yards
Western Michigan stats to know:
Zach Terrell: 26-for-36 with 218 yards passing and one touchdown
Summary: The Wildcats got off to a good start, with Justin Jackson scoring a one-yard touchdown on Northwestern’s opening drive. Thorson was 5-of-8 on the first drive, but 2-of-6 since. Western Michigan converted 1-of-2 field goals, with the first attempt (a 50-yarder) off the crossbar. Broncos’ top receiver Corey Davis broke free from the Sky Team and nearly hauled in a 35-yard touchdown pass, but it was just out of his reach. Zach Terrell has led his team down the field multiple times, with the Cats struggling to tackle, but the Broncos have been unable to find the endzone.
Northwestern stats to know:
Clayton Thorson: 7-for-14 with 69 passing yards, 3 carries for -2 rushing yards
Northwestern’s vaunted “Sky Team” secondary will have a bit of a different look in 2016.
Cornerback Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Henry have graduated, leaving a Wildcats defense that allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the country last season. To fill the void, NU will look to senior cornerback — and recently-named team captain — Matthew Harris to head up the defensive backs. A shutdown player, Harris led the team with four interceptions in 2015.
The Wildcats had originally planned for junior cornerback Keith Watkins II to start opposite Harris, but after a knee injury during training camp left him sidelined for the season, the only other cornerback on the roster, sophomore Montre Hartage, is expected to jump in. Hartage played in every game in 2015, though mostly on special teams, and had four tackles as a backup.
Meanwhile, the middle of the field will likely be filled by junior safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro. Igwebuike burst onto the scene as a freshman after intercepting three passes in the Cats’ upset win over Wisconsin and improved last year as a sophomore, starting every game and finishing second on the team in tackles. Queiro has spent most of his career as a backup and missed eight games in 2015 due to injury,but that will change this season.
Behind the wall of Igwebuike and Queiro, there are only two other true safeties listed on the roster — a potential cause for concern if injuries start to mount.Sophomore Jared McGee looks to have a role as a backup after being listed on the opening two-deep, and sophomore defensive back Parrker Westphal, a former four-star recruit, made the two-deep for the first time in his career for the Cats’ opening matchup vs. Western Michigan. Junior Tommy Odell should factor in at some point as well.
Additionally, NU has eight players rostered simply as “defensive back” but most of them are freshmen or redshirt freshmen who don’t have any experience or a true position yet. That’s not to say they won’t see the field at some point this season. Redshirt freshmen Trae Williamsand Alonzo Mayo will see some action and compete for playing time as reserves, with the winner to fill in at Queiro’s old role last year as a backup rotational player.
The bottom line is that the Cats’ secondary will be one of the best in the nation again in 2016. NU clearly has confidence in its defensive backs, so much so that the team released a Costacos Brothers themed poster earlier this offseason. All that stands in the unit’s way is another freak injury. Coach Pat Fitzgerald moved Marcus McShepard and Steven Reese to wide receiver in February, a good move which shored up a paper-thin receiving core, but if another defensive back gets hurt, especially after Watkins II went down, secondary depth may soon become an issue.