Big Ten

After back-to-back blowout losses, what's happened to Northwestern?


After back-to-back blowout losses, what's happened to Northwestern?

With Halloween approaching, it’s unfortunately fitting that Northwestern has decided to become the Big Ten’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The Wildcats looked stupendous through their first five games, winning them all and doing it with a dominant defense that was statistically the country’s best, and the eye test seemed to prove it. In impressive wins over Stanford, Duke and Minnesota, Northwestern allowed a grand total of one touchdown.

Heading into last weekend’s matchup with Michigan, Northwestern had the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, allowing an average of just seven points a game.

But then that Michigan game happened, a 38-0 loss at the Big House. And then Saturday’s 40-10 loss to Iowa happened, an even worse performance, this time at home.

What’s gotten into these Wildcats that’s transformed them from one of the nation’s better-looking teams to a team that has been absolutely pounded in each of the last two games?

“It’s been very disappointing, our performances the last two weeks,” defensive lineman Dean Lowry said after Saturday’s loss. “We know we can do better, and we’ve got to look at ourselves in the mirror tonight and ask ourselves, ‘Are we the team that beat Stanford and Minnesota? Or are we the team that came out and performed (the way we did) today?’ I think this game will bring a lot of reflection these next few days.”

That doesn’t really answer the question, but it at least shows the crossroads at which the Cats have arrived.

Two seasons ago, Northwestern started the season 4-0 before a huge game against Ohio State went the Buckeyes’ way. But the Cats lost their next six games, too, eventually finishing that campaign 5-7. After the loss to Michigan, Northwestern vowed to not do that again, and there’s plenty of football remaining, meaning there’s no need to worry about that kind of collapse quite yet.

But if the Cats keep playing like they did against Michigan and Iowa, that slope could get slipperier.

Through five weeks, the Northwestern defense was suffocating. It was among the best in the country at stopping anything opponents threw at it. And despite a passing attack that has yet to get off the ground behind freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson, the Cats were able to lean on stud running back Justin Jackson and average better than 250 yards a game on the ground to lead the Big Ten.

Oh how things have changed. Michigan’s offense accounted for 24 of the team’s 38 points that day, with quarterback Jake Rudock picking the Northwestern defense apart. Saturday, Iowa had nearly 500 yards of total offense, and No. 3 running back Akrum Wadley rushed for 204 yards and four touchdowns.

To make matters worse on offense — Thorson continues to turn the ball over, he had three Saturday — the rushing attack has vanished. Against Michigan, Northwestern only gained 38 yards on the ground. Against Iowa, only 51.

“A lot of work to do, we’ve got to get back to work,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “Team’s got to make a decision: (Is it going to be) a team that went out and won five games and made plays and were making plays all over the place or a team that last two weeks quite frankly is void of making plays? We’ve got to do a better job as a staff, get their confidence back. We’ve got to get our guys to tackle better, we’ve got to get our guys to block better, get off blocks better, catch the ball better.

“Through five weeks, we made a lot of plays. And we’ve got to get the guys back to that point.”

There’s no doubt that competition makes a difference. Even though Stanford is currently a top-10 team and Duke is a talented team, as well, Northwestern has caught Michigan and Iowa while those teams are playing lights-out football. The Hawkeyes are undefeated and have a firm grip on the Big Ten West. If not for a wild finish in yesterday’s game between the Wolverines and Spartans, Michigan would probably be waking up as a top-10 team Sunday.

“We’ve played two teams in a row that are playing at a high level, and we didn’t execute. And when you play teams that are playing at a high level and don’t execute, it compounds the problem,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s going to be continual challenges as you move forward. Taking steps up the mountain, it gets harder and harder as the air gets thinner and thinner, and that’s Big Ten football as you move through October and November. We’ve just got to get back on the horse and get back to playing the way that we were.”

But playing good competition can’t be all, can it? The way the Cats played through the first five weeks and the way they’ve played the last two have been radically different.

Thorson’s turnovers and his leading an ineffective offense is a critical component. The turnovers are on him — he made an awful throw that was intercepted and fumbled the ball away twice — but not everything is. Dropped passes were extraordinarily prevalent in Saturday’s game, and they did a good job killing any chance at momentum at various points in the game. The offensive line couldn’t create much room for Jackson, and with the score what it was, the coaches decided — rightly or wrongly — to abandon the run and keep passing. Jackson, the team’s best offensive weapon by far, only had 10 carries.

The struggling offense meant the defense didn’t get much rest. The defense had to return to the field after numerous offensive drives that lasted less than a minute. What was a six-point game at half ballooned to a 30-point game by the end because the defense just couldn’t keep up. A similar thing happened against Michigan, though it happened earlier in the game.

“Defensively we just ran out of gas. We couldn’t get off the field,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ve got to credit our opponent. I thought Iowa, at the point of attack, blocked well. We missed as many tackles as we have all year, which came out of nowhere. We’ve been tackling pretty well.”

In the end, it looks like the root of the problem is the same one that’s plagued Northwestern in seasons past: consistency. There have been games where the Cats have looked terrific, and there have been games where they have looked awful. To use last season as an example, the Cats demolished Penn State on the road and backed it up with a huge home win over a ranked Wisconsin team. But they were also crushed by a mediocre Iowa team and lost at home to Illinois.

Will this be another up-and-down season? Or will Northwestern get back to what made it look like one of college football’s best through the first five weeks of the season and make this a campaign to remember?

“We’ve got a great plan, I believe in the guys in the locker room,” Fitzgerald said, “but we’ve got to get them to play more consistently.”

See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 12 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 12 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (10-1)

Still the team with the best resume in the country, no one can compete with OU’s wins over TCU, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, the latter two coming away from Norman. Baker Mayfield might not be a choir boy, but he’s the best player in the nation.

2. Miami (10-0)

You might think that being down 28-14 to Virginia in the second half was cringe-worthy, but the Canes made up for things by storming back with 30 unanswered points. Now they finally have to go away from South Florida for the first time since almost losing to North Carolina last month.

3. Alabama (11-0)

Tide gonna roll. But this Cupcake Weekend in the SEC has got to stop. While teams in other conferences are slugging it out against rivals, Bama gets to take a day off against Mercer? It’s just not fair. Also, Bama’s schedule is so soft, there’s no way it deserves to be the No. 1 team in the country.

4. Georgia (10-1)

The Dawgs should wrap an 11-1 regular season this weekend against Georgia Tech. But the SEC title game presents a kind of no-win scenario: undefeated Alabama or Auburn, who throttled Georgia earlier this month.

5. Wisconsin (11-0)

You didn’t need Wisconsin to do what it did to Iowa and Michigan to prove it had one of the best defenses in the country — but that sure didn’t help. Stockpiling national love with those two wins, a win in the Big Ten title game figures to make the Badgers a Playoff lock.

6. Clemson (10-1)

Why’d Kelly Bryant have to go and get hurt for that Syracuse game? The Tigers would be No. 1 and the undisputed best team in the country. Still, though, a win over Miami in the ACC title game ought to get the champs back into the Playoff.

7. Auburn (9-2)

Great job pounding Louisiana-Monroe, Tigers. You shall not escape the wrath over Cupcake Weekend in the SEC. That dumb game aside, Auburn and Alabama will meet in a titanic Iron Bowl this weekend with a trip to the SEC title game on the line — and perhaps a Playoff spot, as well.

8. Ohio State (9-2)

Not that pummeling Illinois is any big deal, but the Buckeyes are still alive in this thing and look like a team capable of making some Playoff noise. First, Ohio State has to win The Game and then the Big Ten title game to knock out undefeated Wisconsin.

9. Notre Dame (9-2)

Out of the Playoff chase thanks to that loss at Miami, Notre Dame squeaked by Navy this past weekend. Hope a New Year’s Six bowl game is enough for the Irish. We know it’s not enough for those ND fans. So maybe join a conference? Just saying.

10. TCU (9-2)

The Frogs can still make their mark on the Playoff race, even if they can’t get in themselves. The Big 12 title game will almost surely be TCU’s attempt at revenge on Oklahoma. Unfortunately, if revenge does come, it will probably cannibalize the conference’s Playoff hopes, too.

11. Penn State (9-2)

Why Penn State gave up 44 points to Nebraska, I do not know. What I do know is that probably no one cared because Penn State is going to go down as the most inconsequential 10-2 team of all-time. Such a bummer considering the preseason expectations for both the team and Saquon Barkley.

12. USC (10-2)

Yeah, I guess there’s still a way for USC to make the Playoff, but it’s hard to imagine that madness unfolding, even in the oft-mad college football. The Trojans get the winner of the Apple Cup in the Pac-12 title game.

13. UCF (10-0)

Finally we get our much-anticipated UCF-USF showdown this weekend. Make it count, Knights. This is probably gonna be Scott Frost’s last regular-season game in Orlando.

14. Washington (9-2)

It’s hard to say who has the edge in the Apple Cup, but certainly the stakes are high, with the winner going off to play USC in the Pac-12 title game. Can either team make the Playoff? Well, probably not, no.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Is this it for Mike Leach on The Palouse? He could be a hot candidate this offseason and leave for perceived greener pastures. Winning the Apple Cup would go a long way toward making that happen.

16. Mississippi State (8-3)

A win in the Egg Bowl means a 9-3 regular season for the Bulldogs with their three losses coming against three top-10 teams.

17. Oklahoma State (8-3)

Poor Okie State has been so good all year and had two losses to the two best teams in its conference, and then it went and lost to K-State for some ridiculous reason. The Mullet deserved better in 2017.

18. Northwestern (8-3)

The Cats are the fourth-best team in the Big Ten, simple as that, with wins over Michigan State and Iowa and conference losses to Wisconsin and Penn State. As commendable an effort as you’ll find in a highly competitive league. Plus, Fitz’s team is on a six-game win streak that could end up extending to eight.

19. Stanford (8-3)

Already with a win over Washington, Stanford could close the regular season with two wins over top-10 teams in its final three games. Also Bryce Love is back in the groove after back-to-back 100-yard games.

20. Memphis (9-1)

The Tigers have lost just one game all season, to the best Group of Five team out there. Heck of a season by Memphis.

21. Michigan State (8-3)

A 17-7 win over Maryland couldn't have been the most exciting way for anyone to spend their weekend. Sparty's had a mighty fine season, though, considering how badly things went in 2016.

22. LSU (8-3)

The SEC has seemingly gotten increasingly better as the year has progressed, with LSU and Mississippi State making for a solid-enough middle tier. But remember when LSU lost to Troy? That wasn’t good.

23. South Florida (9-1)

If not for that loss to Houston, USF’s showdown with UCF this weekend would be for Group of Five supremacy. Even without that, though, this should be a highly entertaining affair.

24. Virginia Tech (8-3)

The Hokies have a chance to salvage their tumble at the close of the season with a win at Virginia. But given how well the Cavs played at Miami this past weekend, a VT win is no sure thing.

25. Iowa State (7-4)

I understand the math and all, but can't the Big 12 just suspend its rules and send Iowa State to the title game? We all want to see the OU-ISU rematch. Why are you preventing us from being happy, Big 12?

See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings


See how they stack up: Week 11 college football top 25 rankings

With Week 11 in the books, here’s my top 25:

1. Oklahoma (9-1)

The Sooners probably won’t be No. 1 in the Playoff rankings, as the committee will almost surely move Bama up a notch. But OU has an incredible resume, one much better than the Tide’s, with wins over Ohio State, TCU and Okie State. No one in the country can compete with those wins.

2. Miami (9-0)

The Canes are too legit to quit after pulverizing Notre Dame on Saturday night. That signature win teamed with the prior week’s win over Virginia Tech makes that near loss to lowly North Carolina seem like forever ago. Welcome to Miami, indeed.

3. Alabama (10-0)

A great win on Saturday night by the Tide in what seemed like their first actual game of the season. The schedule has been soft as silk, but now Auburn’s status as an SEC juggernaut makes the Iron Bowl a colossal clash.

4. Georgia (9-1)

Knocked off the top of the college football mountain, the Dawgs still deserve to be in the Playoff field, just a one-loss team with that one loss coming to another top team and that still-excellent win at Notre Dame. The resume’s still there, but now the SEC title game will be for all the marbles.

5. Wisconsin (10-0)

Bucky’s sitting pretty after making Iowa look like an FCS team on Saturday — especially impressive considering what Iowa did the week prior. Expect Michigan and Minnesota to provide decent enough challenges, but it seems like Wisconsin’s set up for a Big Ten title-game date with Ohio State.

6. Clemson (9-1)

Miami is the king of the ACC, but thankfully the ACC title game looks to be a Playoff play-in game between the Tigers and Canes. The champs still have as good a shot at this thing as anyone.

7. Auburn (8-2)

Two-loss Auburn in the Playoff? It’s not crazy at all after what the Tigers did to Georgia on Saturday, destroying the No. 1 team in the country and setting up what will be another titanic Iron Bowl meeting with Bama.

8. Notre Dame (8-2)

The Irish’s Playoff hopes sank like a ship in Biscayne Bay thanks to the demolition Miami dolled out on Saturday night. ND’s resume is still fine — two losses to two Playoff-caliber teams. But with no conference title to play for, a two-loss ND team might as well be a six-loss ND team.

9. Ohio State (8-2)

Guess who's still lurking in the Playoff race? It seemed Brutus was dead as could be after getting woodshedded by Iowa last weekend, but then Ohio State put a whooping on Michigan State and everyone’s ears perked up again. Appearing destined for the Big Ten title game, things could get interesting.

10. TCU (8-2)

The Frogs will most likely still get a crack at a Big 12 title — and revenge on the Sooners, who picked em apart on Saturday — but the Playoff might be out of the cards now.

11. Oklahoma State (8-2)

You know who’s still really good despite having losses to the two top teams in the Big 12? Okie State. That was some game between the Pokes and the ‘Clones on Saturday. If only the Mullet could be unleashed on the Playoff. Alas.

12. USC (9-2)

Dramatically overrated in the last batch of Playoff rankings, the Trojans now seem to be the cream of the unimpressive Pac-12 after Washington’s loss. All sorts of madness would have to occur in order for USC — or any Pac-12 team — to land in the final four.

13. Penn State (8-2)

Great job beating up on Rutgers this weekend, Penn State. Now what? With games against Nebraska and Maryland left, will any preseason favorite (outside Florida State, of course) get less attention down the stretch than the Lions?

14. UCF (9-0)

Central Florida is that Group of Five team this year. If it beats USF in the regular-season finale, people you know will be like, “Why shouldn’t UCF be in the Playoff?” And you’ll just have to give them a look and walk away.

15. Washington State (9-2)

Wazzu has to win one game and it’ll play USC for a Pac-12 title. Despite the lack of Playoff stakes, the Cougs winning a conference championship would be a pretty big deal.

16. Washington (8-2)

Of course, standing in Wazzu’s way is Washington, which tripped up against Stanford and could follow up last year’s Playoff appearance with absolutely nothing.

17. NC State (7-3)

The ACC and SEC seemed to have flipped roles overnight. The once-mediocre SEC now has three playoff-caliber teams and a couple other decent ones. The once-awesome ACC now has two of the best teams in the country and then … NC State.

18. Mississippi State (7-3)

The Bulldogs put up one heck of a fight against Bama on Saturday, and if it wasn’t for that ridiculous sequence of play-calling following Bama’s missed field goal, they might have won. Oh well.

19. LSU (7-3)

LSU beat Arkansas on Saturday, which isn’t a terribly difficult thing to do. 2017 will go down as a “what if” year for the Bayou Bengals. As in, what if they hadn’t lost to Troy?

20. Stanford (7-3)

Two of Stanford’s losses have come against ranked teams. It’s now beaten Washington and could beat Notre Dame in two weeks. It has one of the best running backs in America. So shouldn’t Stanford be better?

21. Memphis (8-1)

Since losing at UCF, Memphis has rolled everyone, winning five straight by an average of 47.8-27.2. Good job, Memphis.

22. Arizona (7-3)

The Wildcats are 7-3 this season and have scored at least 45 points in every one of those wins. That includes last weekend’s win over Oregon State, in which Khalil Tate ran for 206 yards and two touchdowns. Dude's good.

23. Northwestern (7-3)

Meow. The Cats are winners of five straight, even if their overtime streak came to an end. The quest for a 9-3 finish is on, with only Minnesota and lowly Illinois left on the regular-season schedule.

24. Michigan State (7-3)

Two losses in three weeks for Sparty, who got absolutely steamrolled by Ohio State this past weekend. Michigan State will likely be rooting for Michigan in The Game as it would figure to wrap its regular season with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.

25. West Virginia (7-3)

The ‘Neers have only lost to Virginia Tech, TCU and Okie State, which is not too bad. But that’s a couple losses too many in the high-flying Big 12.

Others receiving votes:

Virginia Tech (7-3)

Things have bottomed out for the Hokies, who have lost back-to-back road games to Miami and Georgia Tech after a 7-1 start. Without the loss to the Jackets, Virginia Tech’s resume would look real nice. But alas.

Iowa State (6-4)

There was almost another Attack of the ‘Clones this past weekend in a thriller with Okie State. But the Pokes came out on top, sending Iowa State to its fourth loss. That dream Big 12 title game featuring the ‘Clones? A fantasy. Sigh.

Michigan (8-2)

Michigan only has two losses, which means it has to be kinda good, right? Well, it’s lost its only two games against ranked teams and its best win is Florida, so … no, I guess not.

South Florida (8-1)

Way to beat UConn, South Florida.