Northwestern's offense goes missing as Penn State sends Cats to blowout loss

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Northwestern's offense goes missing as Penn State sends Cats to blowout loss

When you're in the dairy aisle at Jewel this week, don't be surprised to see Northwestern's offense on the back of a milk carton.

The Wildcats couldn't get much of anything going on that side of the ball, wasting what early on was a strong defensive performance before visiting Penn State ran away with a 31-7 win Saturday afternoon in Evanston.

The early story was Northwestern's defense silencing Heisman-favorite running back Saquon Barkley, who had a negative rushing total at halftime and well into the second half. Penn State's explosive offense managed just 10 points in the game's first 30 minutes.

But Barkley and the Nittany Lions showed up after halftime. The star running back scored on a leaping one-yard touchdown rush to put Penn State up by 17 in the third quarter. Then he had his Heisman moment of the week, bursting away from the Northwestern defense for a 53-yard scoring dash about seven minutes later.

Barkley finished with 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The Cats' solid defensive play early was completely forgotten by the time the Lions grabbed a 31-0 lead in the fourth quarter, but the story of the day for Northwestern was its offense's glaring ineffectiveness. Of course, Penn State deserves a great deal of credit. But for the second straight week, a top-10 conference opponent barraged quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Cats turned the ball over three times, including a pair of Thorson interceptions. All those turnovers came in the first half. Thorson threw for just 142 yards and zero touchdowns.

Justin Jackson was again mostly a non-factor, rushing 16 times for 66 yards and no touchdowns. He had a big 30-yard run in the first half, but that was negated by a penalty, one of a few critical flags to go against Northwestern in that first half. A defensive holding call wiped away an interception, allowing Penn State to finish off that drive with a field goal.

On the day, the Cats mustered just 265 yards of offense and had 74 penalty yards compared to the Lions, who finished with 381 total yards and just 30 yards of penalties.

Northwestern has somewhat expectedly struggled in the first two games of conference play, falling in back-to-back contests to Wisconsin and Penn State, two teams who could once again meet for a Big Ten title at season's end. The Cats fell to 2-3 on the season with the loss.

Penn State, meanwhile, reached bowl eligibility with its sixth win. A perfect 6-0, the Lions have outscored opponents 238-54.

Wisconsin rolls on: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

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Wisconsin rolls on: Ten big things from the weekend in Big Ten football

1. What, Wisconsin worry?

Wisconsin is still on course for that table-running everyone was so excited about the possibility of before the season started after beating Northwestern on Saturday. It wasn’t the prettiest win, with the Cats on top at halftime and then staging a late comeback attempt that sliced a blowout down to a one-possession game in the final minutes. But the Badgers cranked up the defense during a dominant third quarter to get a big enough lead to hang onto for their fourth win in four games.

While that third quarter was 15 minutes’ worth of the impressive Wisconsin team we saw during the first three games, the single-digit margin of victory and the season-high in points allowed makes you wonder whether the Badgers will be able to win out and roll through the Big Ten West as expected.

Certainly rolling through the Big Ten West shouldn’t be a problem, as believed challengers like Iowa and Minnesota and even Northwestern had huge setbacks this weekend (and the prior, in Iowa’s case). Nebraska’s in a bad state, and Illinois and Purdue are still Illinois and Purdue. The game circled on the calendar remains Michigan on Nov. 18 in Madison.

I wouldn’t worry too much about one nine-point win being a negative sign of any kind. Alex Hornibrook wasn’t the near-perfect quarterback he was against BYU, but he straightened things out in the second half and made some big plays. Jonathan Taylor Touchdown kept earning his nickname, too, with a pair of rushing scores. And that defense, oh that defense. It was an onslaught of pass-rushers in Clayton Thorson’s face, and Wisconsin limited Northwestern (and star back Justin Jackson) to a paltry 25 rushing yards.

The Badgers are going to be just fine.

2. Give Saquon Barkley the Heisman right now

Saquon Barkley continued barnstorming toward the Heisman with another big day in Penn State’s runaway win over Indiana. Barkley rushed and received for a combined 107 yards, but it was other stuff that made the highlight reels.

He returned the game’s opening kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.

And he threw a 16-yard touchdown pass.

And he made a one-handed catch before juking someone out of their shoes.

The guy is unbelievable, and while there are plenty of great players around the country — Bryce Love at Stanford, Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma, Mason Rudolph at Oklahoma State to name a few — Barkley has played head and shoulders above all of them.

3. Don’t look now, but Buckeyes have best offense in Big Ten

Remember when everyone was freaking out about Ohio State’s offense? Maybe they still are? Well they should calm down because the Buckeyes have the best offense in the conference, averaging 42.6 points and 564.8 yards per game. Only four teams in the country are putting up more yards per week: Three of them are in the offense-happy Big 12 and the fourth has reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson.

It’s well worth pointing out that outside of Oklahoma, an upsetting home loss in which Ohio State scored just one touchdown, the Buckeyes have blitzed inferior competition, beating Indiana in Week 1 and Army, UNLV and Rutgers since that Week 2 defeat. This weekend, the Buckeyes jacked up their numbers by steamrolling the Scarlet Knights, winning 56-0 and racking up 628 total yards. Goodness.

Whether the offensive woes from the first couple games have been completely exorcised remains to be seen. After all, can we judge Ohio State on what it’s done in three runaways against Army, UNLV and Rutgers? No. But for a team that was taking so much heat for its offensive struggles, these numbers are off-the-charts great. It’s not a dissimilar situation form last year, when the Buckeyes’ offense was constantly bemoaned, only for them to put up big numbers nearly every week.

Of course, in the only week that truly ended up mattering, against Clemson in the College Football Playoff, the offense was awful. Same goes for the Week 2 loss to Oklahoma. Let’s just say that the Oct. 28 game against Penn State will be mighty important in finally settling this.

4. My son is also named Bortenschlager

How bout dem Terps?

Already with a couple strong performances this season, chiefly that win on the road at Texas, Maryland got maybe its biggest win Saturday — due to the fact that it was down to its third-string quarterback. Starter Tyrrell Pigrome was lost for the year in the Texas game, and the same fate befell Kasim Hill in a loss at UCF. Enter Max Bortenschlager, who led Maryland in a win over Minnesota in the Twin Cities.

Bortenschlager threw two touchdown passes and rushed in for another score as the Terps moved to 3-1 on the season and scored an impressive road victory over a team that was supposed to compete for a division title this year.

The key play was the game-winning touchdown scamper by Ty Johnson, a 34-yard dash that was part of another big rushing day for Maryland — something the Terps always need if they’re going to come away with a win. But Bortenschlager didn’t turn the ball over, and for DJ Durkin’s team to do what it did against previously undefeated Minnesota is mighty impressive.

5. Didn’t see that coming, Sparty

After Michigan State’s lukewarm start to the season and Iowa impressing through a 3-1 beginning to the campaign, the Hawkeyes seemed a logical pick to win Saturday despite going on the road. Well, instead, it was kind of a dominating performance by the Spartans, who held the Hawkeyes to just 226 yards and one trip to the end zone. Iowa only picked up 19 — 19! — rushing yards and fumbled the ball away twice.

Outside of the prior weekend’s 20-point blowout loss to Notre Dame, Michigan State has been pretty darn good at holding opponents to low scores, allowing just 34 points total in its three wins over Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Iowa. Those two MAC wins were expected, but the Hawkeyes had been rolling strong behind quarterback Nathan Stanley and running back Akrum Wadley. Not so Saturday, as the Spartans held Stanley to 16-for-31 passing for 192 yards and no touchdowns and Wadley to 17 carries for just 30 yards (he also had a touchdown).

That Michigan State defense is back, huh? Sparty ranks third in the conference — behind top-10 Michigan and Wisconsin teams — in total defense, allowing 248.3 yards per game.

6. Where’s Justin?

Northwestern wasn’t supposed to go up to Camp Randall and stage an upset of a top-10 Wisconsin team, but despite the halftime lead and late comeback try, this was more evidence of a team that’s pretty well removed from what was expected before the season started. And there have been few examples of that more glaring than the up-and-down production from star running back Justin Jackson.

In half of the Cats’ four games, Jackson has been a non-factor, and unsurprisingly the Cats lost both of those games. Jackson had just seven carries for 18 yards in the blowout loss at Duke. He had just nine carries for 25 yards Saturday in Madison.

This isn’t to say this is Jackson’s fault. Playing from behind means an increased likelihood to throw the ball. And the Northwestern offensive line has noticeably struggled, as evidenced by the team’s minuscule rushing numbers and quarterback Clayton Thorson being constantly pressured by the Wisconsin pass rush.

But you’d think that Northwestern would want to feed its best player, a guy who entered the season as one of the best players in the Big Ten. I’m sure they do want to do that, but that hasn’t happened in the two games the Cats have lost.

7. The Illini offense is … 

Abysmal. It might not come as a surprise that the Illinois offense hasn’t been able to do much of anything. But boy that was an ugly performance Friday night against Nebraska, the second straight such performance by an Illini team that’s now 2-2 on the campaign.

No team in the Big Ten is scoring fewer points than the Illini, who are averaging 17.8 per game. No team in the Big Ten is accumulating fewer yards than the Illini, who are averaging 267.3 per game. They have the worst total offense of any Power Five team, and only three teams nationally are averaging fewer yards. Florida State and Boston College are the only Power Five teams scoring fewer points.

Friday, a Nebraska defense that couldn’t stop Arkansas State and that got beat by Northern Illinois (though 14 of NIU’s 21 points in that game came on pick sixes) kept Illinois out of the end zone and held it under 200 yards. The Illini couldn’t do anything offensively, and if that’s a harbinger of things to come, then Big Ten play will go much like it did in 2016.

Lovie Smith is already taking steps to correct this stuck-in-the-mud offense, giving Chayce Crouch the heave-ho as the team’s starting quarterback. That likely means Jeff George Jr. will be the new starter after he had some success in relief of Crouch in the loss to USF. Cam Thomas, a freshman, is an option, too.

8. Ne-back?-ska

No, Nebraska is not back just because it beat up on Illinois. That was the easy part for the Huskers, off to a rocky start that led to the firing of athletics director Shawn Eichorst. Wisconsin and Ohio State in the next two weekends is the hard part.

It’s hard to imagine the Huskers will win either of those two games. But Friday night’s win over the Illini can’t help but be a positive step for a team that was reeling just a few weeks back. Bob Diaco’s defense, which was shredded by the likes of Arkansas State and Oregon, clamped down on Illinois’ ineffective offense. That’s a confidence builder if nothing else.

Again, it might take until Purdue at the end of the month for Nebraska to get its fourth win. A 3-4 start isn’t going to cool down Mike Riley’s hot seat. But a win is a win, and the Huskers now have two of them in Big Ten play.

9. Rutgers’ Big Ten record

This is Rutgers’ fourth season in the Big Ten, and the program’s conference record is not good. The numbers got worse Saturday thanks to Ohio State’s 56-0 crushing. Let’s check in on the Knights’ cumulative Big Ten totals.

In four three seasons plus two games, Rutgers has a 4-23 record in Big Ten play. They’ve been outscored 1,055-439 and have been shutout six times.

So that’s not very good.

10. Jim Harbaugh jumped into a pool

Michigan didn’t play Saturday, but somehow Jim Harbaugh still grabbed headlines. Why? He jumped into a pool.

This guy.

Northwestern tries late comeback but drops conference opener to Wisconsin

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Northwestern tries late comeback but drops conference opener to Wisconsin

If the preseason prognostications are to be believed, Wisconsin should run away with the Big Ten West.

One game in, the Badgers are on their way.

Northwestern put up a fight, leading at halftime and even staging a late comeback effort, but a mostly dominating performance by Wisconsin in the second half meant an improvement to 4-0 and a win in the conference opener for the team from Madison.

The Wildcats took the ball away three times in the first half and got a lengthy touchdown drive to carry a 10-7 lead into halftime. But it was almost entirely Badgers after the break, a near-perfect third quarter highlighted by an unrelenting pass rush and a pair of touchdowns.

Adding a field goal and a pick six in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin briefly sent this one into blowout territory. But Clayton Thorson threw a pair of touchdown passes in the final five minutes to bring it to a one-score game. Northwestern even got the ball back with a little more than a minute remaining, but the attempt at a miracle comeback was thwarted when Thorson was sacked in the end zone for a game-ending safety.

Wisconsin’s defense stepped up big time after halftime and brought incredible pressure on Thorson, finishing with eight sacks on the afternoon. The Badgers also held the Cats to a paltry 25 rushing yards, the same total that went to star running back Justin Jackson, who carried the ball only nine times.

Meanwhile, Alex Hornibrook rebounded from a bit of a shaky start. After completing 18 of his 19 passes in the Badgers’ previous game, Hornibrook threw two interceptions in the first half but had a better second half, throwing a touchdown pass in the third quarter. Running back Jonathan Taylor had two touchdown carries on the day.

Despite Thorson’s late drives, Wisconsin continues to look like the kind of team that can run over the division and pile up a ton of wins this season. Northwestern’s 14 fourth-quarter points were the first Wisconsin’s defense allowed in the second half this season, but it was still a very impressive performance from that side of the ball.

The Badgers have outscored their opponents 163-54 in their four wins this season.

Northwestern dropped to 2-2 on the season with the loss and is still struggling to put together much offensive consistency. The offensive line has a lot to do with that, as exhibited by Wisconsin’s sack total and the meager rushing total. Jackson has now been effectively silenced in two of the Cats’ four games this season, something that cannot happen if Northwestern expects to win games.

And, as Pat Fitzgerald pointed out after the game, only scoring three points off those three first-half turnovers was a huge development.

Northwestern gets no time to rest, as a brutal 1-2 punch to start conference play continues next weekend with another top-10 team, Penn State, in Evanston.