Big Ten

Northwestern defense among the best, but can offense do its part?

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Northwestern defense among the best, but can offense do its part?

One of the best defenses in the country has propelled Northwestern to an undefeated 4-0 start heading into conference play. The Wildcats look like a serious Big Ten West contender and currently boast the No. 16 ranking in the AP poll.

But as great as the defense has been — the third-best scoring defense in the FBS, as a matter of fact, holding opponents to 8.8 points a game — can the offense do its part to keep the team's success going?

No one is expecting the Cats' offense, led by a redshirt freshman quarterback in Clayton Thorson, to be as good as the out-of-this-world defense. But the offense has failed to impress for most of the season thus far, struggling to score points and keep drives alive. It's putting a lot of pressure on that defense, which to this point has answered the bell. And in a game where Thorson had three first-half turnovers in last week's game against Ball State, the Northwestern defense allowed its biggest day of the year.

Stepping things up with a tough Big Ten schedule that features plenty of other top-of-the-line defenses — upcoming opponents Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State, Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois all currently rank in the top 29 in the country in total defense — can the struggling Northwestern offense keep the Cats from sinking, despite that sensational D?

“If we do what we did in the first half this (past) Saturday every Saturday during Big Ten play, we’ll get embarrassed, turnover wise.” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said Monday during his weekly press conference.

[MORE BIG TEN: Week 5 Big Ten previews: Figuring out West contenders]

All eyes will continue to be on Thorson, who is still just four games into his college career at the game's most important position. Thorson has had his good moments, and he's had his bad moments. The game against Ball State was a perfect microcosm of both the freshman mistakes that have plagued him in the past two games as well as the terrific talent that could turn him into a top-tier college QB down the road. Thorson fumbled twice and threw an inexplicable interception that flew a mile away from the nearest receiver and made for an easy play for the Ball State defensive back. But Thorson also threw three touchdowns in that game, two in a third quarter that had him looking like a new man.

“I think the third quarter was a pretty good snapshot of what he’s capable of," Fitzgerald said. "Beyond all the other things, he’s got to take care of the football. That’s the No. 1 priority not only this week but every week, and he’s got to be better there. Any time you play a football game from a lower division and you give them life — and we fluxed life right into them turning the ball over three times in the first half. ... Clayton, in particular, put our defense in a real, real tough situation in the first half, but I love the way he responded. I thought he had a pretty good second half, maybe one throw he’d like to have back. ... Outside of that I thought he played pretty well, and we’ve got to build on that and just keep helping him grow and I’ll know he’ll embrace that.”

Still, with all the good we saw from Thorson in that second half, the turnovers still remain a huge problem. After going the first two games without an interception — though there were throws that certainly could have been picked off — Thorson has thrown three in the last two games.

"I don’t think he’s had a great performance yet," Fitzgerald said. "I thought the third quarter was a good performance. But as an overall game — you can’t have selective amnesia.

"A lot of room for growth. He’s working at it, he understands it. We will continue to put him in a crucible in practice.”

[MORE BIG TEN: Replace or renovate? Penn State trying to figure out how to modernize Beaver Stadium]

All that being said, the team still has a world of confidence in Thorson. It's evident in Fitzgerald's words but even more so when listening to Thorson's teammates. Earlier this season, super back Dan Vitale said Thorson is perhaps the most respected player on the team, and that type of praise hasn't gone anywhere even with Thorson's turnover struggles.

“You certainly wouldn’t know Clayton’s a freshman, honestly. He might as well be a fifth-year senior for us," offensive lineman Shane Mertz said Monday. "He’s out there, he’s leading the offense, he’s talking to the O-line, he’s talking to receivers. I think he’s done a phenomenal job this year, and I have complete confidence that he’s our quarterback and he’s going to do a great job throughout the rest of the year.”

Plus, the Northwestern offense has another weapon that can take the pressure off the defense and off Thorson. Running back Justin Jackson has been silently killing it through the first four games, rushing for 516 yards, which ranks in the top 10 in the country. He's gone over 100 yards in three of the four games and is fresh off a career-high 184 yards against Ball State.

You wouldn't think an offense boasting one of college football's best running backs would be scuffling, but the truth is that stems not just from Thorson's recent bout of turnovers but from an inability to cash in with points. Northwestern's defense might rank third in scoring defense, but the offense ranks 93rd in scoring offense with a 25-points-per-game average. And much of that is buoyed by a 41-0 blowout of Eastern Illinois. In the other three games, the Cats averaged just 19.7 points per game, an average that would rank 118th out of 127 teams. Jackson has scored just one touchdown.

[MORE BIG TEN: Badgers send Corey Clement to Germany for hernia treatment]

Much of that comes from a lack of success in the red zone, where in 13 attempts, the Cats have come away with touchdowns just three times. They've settled for seven field goals in those 13 trips and come away empty handed another three times.

"The goal is obviously touchdowns, but points are critically important," Fitzgerald said. "So it’s going to be important, especially as you get into Big Ten play, we’ve got to score touchdowns and we’ve got to be better down there.”

Of course, there's a point to be made that with the defense doing such a great job of limiting opponents, putting up a ton of points on the offensive side isn't the most necessary thing in the world.

That could be especially true this week, when the Cats face Minnesota, one of the worst offensive teams in the country. The Gophers are the lowest-ranked Power 5 team when it comes to scoring offense, and only eight other FBS teams rank below them. Scoring has been a struggle for Jerry Kill's team, and up against the strong Northwestern defense, it could be even more difficult than it has been against teams like Colorado State and Kent State.

Of course, the same would be true for the Northwestern offense against a talented, bu injured, Minnesota defense.

While defensive success has got Northwestern to this point and will be the main reason they go further if the Cats do indeed compete for a Big Ten West division title, the offense figuring things out would take a lot of pressure off and give the Cats even more oomph.

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

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USA TODAY

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

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USA TODAY

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.