Max Schuman

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.

2016 Football Preview: All eyes on Thorson as Northwestern heads into season

2016 Football Preview: All eyes on Thorson as Northwestern heads into season
(Daily file photo by Jacob Swan)

Clayton Thorson was a high four-star recruit when he signed with Northwestern in the class of 2014 — the kind of talent that could lead the Wildcats to new heights.

But in his first year at the helm in 2015, Thorson was an unquestioned liability for large chunks of the season as NU ground out 10 wins in spite of its signal-caller. Now, the progression of the sophomore quarterback in his second year as a starter is probably the most important storyline to monitor for the Cats this season.

Stats don’t paint a kind picture of Thorson’s work on the aggregate last season. He averaged a pitiful 5.2 passing yards per attempt, one of the worst marks in the country among qualified quarterbacks, completed a shade over 50 percent of his passes and led one of the worst passing offenses in the country by most measures last season.

While he struggled through the air, Thorson was a passable threat on the ground in 2015, averaging a solid 6.9 yards per carry on a good volume of attempts and making some big plays with his feet. But his athleticism didn’t translate to mobility in the pocket, as Thorson was sacked on roughly seven percent of his dropbacks, putting NU behind schedule offensively with regularity.

Anecdotally, Thorson’s raw talent shined through in some of the big plays of last season, from a game-breaking 42-yard touchdown run against Stanford to open the season to a perfectly-weighted 37-yard wheel-route touchdown throw to the now-graduated Dan Vitale at Nebraska. But in between the big plays were too many indecisive moments leading to sacks or broken-up plays and too many decisive throws telegraphed into the waiting arms of a defender.

Thorson’s limitations severely hindered any attempts by the Cats to be aggressive offensively last year. Coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mick McCall were forced to call a predictable slate of run plays game after game to work around their erratic young quarterback, making things easy for opposing defenses and putting immense pressure on NU’s defense to be near-perfect on most days.

The talent to create big plays is there for Thorson, though, and there’s nowhere to go but up this season relative to the struggles of 2015. If he can show improvement and refinement in his pocket awareness, decision-making and command of the offense, and if more stability on the offensive line and new faces in the receiving corps can give a little help, Thorson could emerge as a reasonably effective quarterback in his second season at the helm.

If it doesn’t come together for Thorson, junior quarterback Matt Alviti is likely the first option to step in as a replacement. Alviti only has seven pass attempts to his name in his collegiate career, but his pedigree as a four-star dual-threat quarterback recruit should give him the first crack at the backup role.

Should disaster strike, the Cats have a total of six quarterbacks on the roster. Sophomore Daniel Kubiuk, redshirt-freshmen TJ Green and Lloyd Yates and freshman Aidan Smith are all battling for the third-string job.

But for better or for worse, Clayton Thorson is NU’s starter heading into the 2016 season. And with plenty of other questions on both sides of the ball, the Cats will be hoping Thorson becomes an answer this year.

2016 Football Preview: Five questions for Northwestern as season approaches

2016 Football Preview: Five questions for Northwestern as season approaches
(Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang)

Coming off a 10-win season marked by low scores and close games — and maybe some luck in Northwestern’s favor, depending on one’s perspective — expectations for the Wildcats are all over the board. And with some key pieces missing from last season’s defense and major room for improvement offensively, questions abound for NU in 2016. The Cats’ answers to these five, in particular, will go a long way toward determining how this season plays out.

1. Can Clayton Thorson be something at quarterback?

Quarterback is the most important position in football, and as such, this question is the most important one for NU heading into this season.

As a redshirt-freshman, Thorson was largely ineffective last season as the starting quarterback. He missed throws long and short, gave the ball away frequently and rarely could bail out the Cats’ offense when it got behind schedule. Although there was plenty of blame to go around for the offense’s struggles in 2015, from shaky pass protection and receivers to a running game that wasn’t explosive enough and questionable play-calling, Thorson deserved some scrutiny for his play as well.

The bright side, then, is that there’s plenty of room for improvement in Thorson’s game, and with some regression to be expected in other areas, a step up from the young quarterback could be the key to keeping NU competitive this year. Even if he doesn’t break out to the point of elevating the rest of the players on the offense, just average quarterback play from Thorson would give the Cats a new look offensively.

2. Where will big offensive plays come from?

Although Thorson’s play will likely be the most important storyline to watch this season, the reality is no matter how much its quarterback improves, NU doesn’t look like a team that will go on long drives without eventually making a mistake.

To make up for that, the Cats need to find ways to generate big plays at a higher clip than they did last season — just 22 running plays went for 20 or more yards and 12 passing plays went for 25 or more yards in 2015. The speedy junior Solomon Vault, transitioning from running back to receiver this offseason, could prove to be a playmaker after the catch, and a better rotation in the backfield could help keep junior running back Justin Jackson fresh enough to break some big runs. A more comfortable Thorson could look to air it out more often, and more successfully, than he did last season.

The Cats won’t become an efficient offensive machine in one offseason, but there are reasonable ways they can create a few more big plays than they did a season ago.

3. Who will pressure opposing quarterbacks?

Arguably the biggest single loss to graduation from last season is defensive end Dean Lowry, who only notched three sacks last season but was a constant presence in the backfield. His line-mate Deonte Gibson, who led the team with nine sacks last season, has graduated as well, leaving behind questions about where the pass rush will come from this season.

Rotational players on the edge last season like senior Ifeadi Odenigbo and junior Xavier Washington will be counted on to perform in bigger roles in 2016, while interior players like junior Tyler Lancaster and sophomore Jordan Thompson could provide some pressure up the middle. NU’s pass rush wasn’t the most fearsome part of its defense last season, but the ability to create pressure without blitzes would be huge for a team looking to stay among the nation’s best on the defensive side.

4. Can the secondary keep it up with some new faces?

The Cats’ secondary was the most lauded unit on the team last season, and with good reason. The “Sky Team” put together a season for the ages, surrendering just five passing touchdowns and 5.5 yards per passing attempt.

Some major pieces in the secondary will be missing next season, as safety Traveon Henry and cornerback Nick VanHoose have graduated, while an expected starter at cornerback, junior Keith Watkins II, has been ruled out for the year with a knee injury. Senior cornerback Matt Harris and junior safety Godwin Igwebuike are top-flight players, but the players around them could be a concern heading into the year.

5. Will the Cats offer any resistance on the big stage?

NU had a memorable 2015 and won a lot of games — but when it lost, it lost big in some of its biggest games of the season.

In a highly anticipated matchup after starting 5-0, the Cats were annihilated at Michigan, 38-0. The next week, they were run over by Iowa in their homecoming game in a 40-10 defeat. And in the Outback Bowl, NU was trampled by Tennessee, 45-6, to end the season on a sour note.

The Cats demonstrated an ability to edge out teams of comparable quality in close games last season, but were exposed in major ways by teams with more talent. With games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa this season, NU’s ability to keep those games competitive could go a long way to making the season feel successful even if the Cats can’t reach 2015’s heights.

Men’s basketball Big Ten game dates released

The final piece of the puzzle for Northwestern’s men’s basketball schedule is finally in place, as the Big Ten announced its conference schedule Thursday.

The Wildcats will open Big Ten play at Penn State, kicking off a stretch of four road games in five to start the conference season featuring perennial contenders Michigan State and some of the conference’s lesser lights in Minnesota, Nebraska, and Rutgers.

Other schedule highlights include a few consecutive-game stretches against quality opponents, such as back-to-back games against Indiana and Purdue and against Wisconsin and Maryland. A three-game stretch featuring the Hoosiers, Michigan and the Boilermakers closes out NU’s conference slate with a few chances to pick up good wins heading into the postseason.

Women’s Soccer at James Madison: Key Matchup

After Northwestern squeaked out an overtime victory against VCU on Friday, the Wildcats are set to finish their first weekend of the season with a showdown with James Madison, an NCAA Tournament qualifier from last season. The game will kick off at 1 p.m.

Matchup to Watch: Dukes forward Ashley Herndon vs. NU’s defense

James Madison’s greatest offensive threat is its dynamic attacker Ashley Herndon, who netted 14 goals last season to lead the Dukes. She has the pedigree to make any team nervous, as the senior was named the CAA’s preseason player of the year and was invited to a U.S. Women’s National Team U-23 camp in May. Defenses can’t just play her purely as a threat to score, either — she notched six assists last season and was credited with an assist on James Madison’s opening goal of its first game this year, a 4-3 double overtime defeat to Arkansas.

Meanwhile, the Cats’ defense picked up where they left off last season in their opener, holding the Rams to just one shot on goal in a shutout victory. The back line has proven to have the talent and cohesion to stop star players in the past. NU needed extra time to break through with a goal against VCU, underscoring the importance of keeping a player like Herndon from putting the Cats behind early.

Fall Sports Preview – Women’s Soccer: After NCAAs berth, Wildcats going for more

Fall Sports Preview – Women’s Soccer: After NCAAs berth, Wildcats going for more
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

It’s been a long road back to national relevance for Northwestern. But for the first time in 17 years, last year’s Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament, setting the bar high for this season’s squad.

After a banner year that was capped off by an appearance in the second round of the NCAAs after a dramatic victory over Washington State in the first round, NU coach Michael Moynihan will look to consolidate his program’s position as a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten and nationally. And with many key contributors returning from last season’s young team, the Cats are poised for another memorable season.

NU was a defensive-minded team last year, looking to grind out results and rely on a strong presence at the back. That figures to stay the same this season, as all of the Cats’ first-choice starters in the back — junior goalkeeper Lauren Clem and outside backs Kassidy Gorman and Nikia Smith and sophomore center backs Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison — return a year after notching a school-record 12 shutouts and finishing in the top 10 in the country in goals-against average.

To take the next step, NU will need to find ways to score at a better clip than last season’s 1.18 goals per game. Much of that burden will fall on junior forward Michelle Manning, a diminutive, confident attacker whose double-overtime goal lifted the Cats over the Cougars in the NCAAs. If the midfield, led by fifth-year senior Nandi Mehta and sophomore Marisa Viggiano, can control possession and provide good service, Manning has proven capable of finishing her chances when it counts.

The schedule appears to set up favorably for NU to rack up wins, as the non-conference slate features a single qualifier for the NCAAs, James Madison, while the Cats avoid last season’s top two regular-season finishers in the Big Ten, Wisconsin and defending national-champion Penn State. If NU can get by teams like Michigan and Minnesota at home and show well on the road against a usually-strong Rutgers team, the Cats could match or exceed last season’s record and make another compelling case for a spot in the NCAAs.

Demps snags summer league spot with Chicago Bulls

Demps snags summer league spot with Chicago Bulls
(Daily file photo by Sam Schumacher)

Northwestern’s men’s basketball had two graduating seniors this season, and now both of them have found chances to impress at the next level. Guard Tre Demps, the Wildcats’ leading scorer last season, is set to appear with the Chicago Bulls in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, per his agency.

Demps will join center Alex Olah, who is playing with the New Orleans Pelicans, in Las Vegas.

After slumping through the first half of the conference season, Demps ended his career at NU by scoring more than 14 points in each of his last 10 games. While his efficiency wasn’t great, shooting 39.8 percent from the field and 33.2 percent from 3, Demps was a key creator for the Cats, leading the team in minutes and shots and earning all-Big Ten honorable mention recognition from the media. He now gets a chance to prove that his game can translate to the NBA for Chicago, a team in transition in the backcourt after trading star point guard Derrick Rose.

The Bulls play their first summer league game July 9 at 5:00 p.m. against the Boston Celtics.

Big Ten announces Northwestern men’s basketball conference opponents

The final pieces of Northwestern men’s basketball’s 2016-2017 schedule are coming together, as on Monday the Big Ten announced the team’s conference home and road conference opponents.

The Wildcats will play both home and away games against Indiana, last season’s Big Ten regular-season champion who blew NU out in their lone matchup in Bloomington last year, as well as against in-state rival Illinois, Purdue, Nebraska and Rutgers.

After preparing a nonconference slate for next season that was panned for its difficulty, the Cats will need to look for quality wins in conference play if they want to stake a claim to a postseason berth. While projecting exactly how the Big Ten will look when the conference season rolls around is impossible, those games against the Hoosiers and Boilermakers, as well as a home date with Maryland and games at Michigan State and Wisconsin, look to be NU’s best chances to boost its resume.

As with pretty much any major-conference schedule, the Cats’ slate gives them ample opportunities to prove themselves against high-caliber opponents and face some difficult tests at home and on the road. Once the Big Ten releases the dates and times of each conference game, a better idea of the key games to circle on NU’s schedule will emerge.

Class of 2017 wide receiver Jace James commits to Northwestern

Pat Fitzgerald pulled in another recruit for the class of 2017 on Sunday, as local product Jace James committed to Northwestern.

James has played both as a wide receiver and in the secondary in high school, but will play on offense for the Wildcats. He had scholarship offers from several mid-major Division I teams, with NU’s offer being his first from a Power 5 school.

James’ commitment is the Cats’ first from a wideout out of 14 overall for 2017. He has decent size for the position, and his highlights show his ability to win one-on-one with fluid breaks and by catching with his hands.

James will play his senior season this fall at Glenbard North, the alma mater of current NU junior running back Justin Jackson.

Northwestern men’s basketball releases 2016-2017 nonconference schedule

Northwestern men’s basketball releases 2016-2017 nonconference schedule
(Daily file photo by Luke Vogelzang)

After Northwestern’s men’s basketball team won 20 regular-season games for the first time in school history but finished the season out of the running for major end-of-year tournaments, most observers pointed to a weak nonconference schedule that left the Wildcats with few chances for signature victories and many wins over some of the worst teams in college basketball.

Coach Chris Collins will be hoping that next season’s nonconference slate, announced by the team Wednesday, will give NU a boost as it looks to return to the postseason.

There are no real marquee games among the newly-announced matchups on the schedule. The Cats open the season on Nov. 11 at home against Mississippi Valley State, and ends their nonconference schedule with a four-game home stretch in December against New Orleans, Chicago State, IUPUI, and Houston Baptist. IUPUI ranked No. 203 by KenPom at the end of last season, while the other four teams ranked below No. 270.

On top of these, NU will participate in the Legends Classic tournament in Brooklyn, with games on Nov. 21 and Nov. 22 against two of Notre Dame, Texas, and Colorado. The Cats will host two other to-be-announced team in tie-in games to the Legends Classic on Nov. 14 and Nov. 25.

NU also is slated to travel to Butler on Nov. 16 as a part of the Gavitt Games, host Wake Forest on Nov. 28 as a part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and play Dayton at the United Center on Dec. 17 in the inaugural Chicago Legends event. The team will also host local rival DePaul on Dec. 3

The schedule will give the Cats chances to beat as many as four teams who played in last season’s NCAA Tournament interspersed with games against some of college basketball’s lesser lights. NU will have to hope that this nonconference slate is enough to set the stage for a run at the postseason.