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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.

Rapid Recap: Western Michigan 22, Northwestern 21

by Tim Balk 0 Comments
Rapid Recap: Western Michigan 22, Northwestern 21
(Keshia Johnson/The Daily Northwestern)

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
  • Corey Davis: 7 receptions for 70 yards

Halftime Recap: Northwestern 7, Western Michigan 6

by Max Gelman 0 Comments

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
  • Justin Jackson: 13 carries for 48 rushing yards, 1 rush toudchdown
  • Hunter Niswander: Two impressive 52-yard punts
  • Brett Walsh: First career sack
  • Austin Carr: 3 catches for 38 receiving yards
  • Warren Long: OUT with an upper body injury

Western Michigan stats to know:

  • Zach Terrell: 13-for-20 with 88 passing yards, 6 carries for 33 rushing yards
  • Corey Davis: 5 catches for 43 receiving yards
  • Jamauri Bogan: 8 carries for 47 rushing yards
  • 19-play drive spanning 10:08

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.)

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.

Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year) 

Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.

Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.

Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.

Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year) 

As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.

Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.

Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.

Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year  — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year) 

NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.

Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.

Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.

Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.

Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year) 

The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.

Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.

Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.

Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year) 

NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.

Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.

Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year) 

The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.

Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.

Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.

Northwestern football ranked No. 50 in all-time AP Top 100

by Tim Balk 0 Comments

In the first ever AP ranking of the top 100 all-time college football programs, Northwestern came in at No. 50.

Big Ten peer Ohio State topped the list, and Nebraska and Michigan clocked in at No. 6 and No. 7 respectively. Seven Big Ten programs made the list’s top 25, including Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Rutgers was the lowest ranked program from the conference at No. 86.

The ranking is based on a formula taking into account the AP’s rankings going back to the poll’s creation in 1936. Ohio State has appeared in more than 77 percent of all AP polls since the ranking’s inception and has topped the ranking 105 times. The Wildcats hold an all-time record of 14-60-1 against the Buckeyes. 

NU finished last year ranked No. 23 in the AP poll having peaked at No. 12 before its bowl loss to Tennessee. The Cats landed ahead of academic peers such as Duke (No. 53), Boston College (No. 57) and Vanderbilt (No. 89) in the all-time ranking. They also finished one spot ahead of in-state rival Illinois.

NU kicks off its season Sep. 3 against against Western Michigan. The AP will release its preseason rankings on Aug. 21.