Well, we're waiting: Northwestern team that sparked preseason expectations missing through two weeks

Well, we're waiting: Northwestern team that sparked preseason expectations missing through two weeks

The pieces seemed to be in place.

Sure, there were questions, as there are with any team. But with Justin Jackson in his fourth season and Clayton Thorson in his third, this was perhaps Pat Fitzgerald’s program’s best shot yet at reaching the Big Ten title game.

But two games in, and Northwestern is looking far from a contender of any kind. The first two contests of the 2017 campaign have featured two ugly performances from the Wildcats. They averted disaster against Nevada, scoring twice in the final five and a half minutes to go from down three to up 11, but the Cats didn’t look good through the majority of a game they were projected to win by more than three touchdowns. Then came Week 2’s horrendous loss to Duke, a 41-17 blowout loss in which Northwestern looked bad in every facet.

Fitzgerald’s reaction to being asked to talk about the Duke game two days later summed it up pretty well.

“Do I have to?”

The numbers were tragic. Northwestern rushed for a jaw-droppingly low 22 yards, with Jackson getting just seven carries for 18 yards. Thorson threw a pair of interceptions. The Cats mustered 191 total yards and converted just once on third down. They had the ball for fewer than 19 minutes. And there’s the damage Daniel Jones and the Duke offense did to the defense, gaining a total of 538 yards, scoring 41 points. Jones had 413 total yards and four total touchdowns by himself.

Jackson was supposedly a little banged up. One of the interceptions was certainly not Thorson’s fault. The defensive secondary was thin. But this was a complete failure all around.

“Any time you get your fanny whipped, you’ve got to look yourself in the mirror first,” Fitzgerald said Monday. “It starts and ends with me. … There were ample opportunities in that game for us to win the game on Saturday. It got away from us a little bit at the end as our defense ran out of gas, and credit Duke for that. But at the end of the day, there are areas there for us to make, we’ve got to go make them happen. All three phases.

“What’s the mood? The mood is let’s work hard to get better. Let’s improve. Let’s get back on the practice field and get things going.”

The natural reaction is to think back to last season, when the campaign’s start was also an issue. The Cats lost their first two games of the season to Western Michigan and Illinois State, embarrassing losses that derailed any shot the team might have had at competing for a division title before things even really got going.

That’s a somewhat flawed comparison, as that was different team with different personnel and different challenges at that time of year. But does it somehow make this year’s edition look a little worse? Things were supposed to be better this time around, and yet that same season-beginning disappointment exists.

“I get it, but there’s way too much stock put into what happened last year. This is a totally different team,” Fitzgerald said. “This is the 12th team I’ve had the privilege to be the head coach for, every team is different. … We’ve got to do a better job as coaches, we’ve got to get those guys to play more fundamentally sound and consistent, and they will. I wish it was Saturday, but it wasn’t.”

The best way to go about that Duke game could very well be to flush it from memory, a favorite coachism in the world of sports. So many things went wrong that just forgetting about it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all for the players.

But for those observing the team, it’s fair to wonder if it will be more of the same as the calendar advances.

Last season’s start was eventually overcome, and the Cats strung together some great performances in the middle of the season. But still the best that could be achieved was a .500 finish to the regular season and a trip to the Pinstripe Bowl. It was a great win in that game for Northwestern, but no one would consider it one of college football’s more illustrious postseason destinations.

Does this year’s slow start signal that a similar fate awaits the 2017 unit? That would be a pretty large disappointment in a season in which preseason expectations were relatively high.

Of course, these Cats still have just one non-conference loss in September. There’s no reason to declare that the season — and everything expected from it before it began — is over. Regardless of what happened before conference play rolled around, the Big Ten slate was always going to start with highly challenging games against Wisconsin and Penn State, games Northwestern would not have been favored in even had these first two weeks featured blowout wins. The final seven games of the schedule — against Maryland, Iowa, Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, Minnesota and Illinois — were where the Cats were supposed to amass the wins necessary to stage a run at a division championship. And of course that can still happen.

But the optics have not been good in the season’s first two weeks. Where’s that Cats team folks were expecting to see?

Well, we’re waiting.

No 2016 repeat: Two late Clayton Thorson QB sneaks give Northwestern season-opening comeback win

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USA TODAY

No 2016 repeat: Two late Clayton Thorson QB sneaks give Northwestern season-opening comeback win

There was no repeat of 2016 for Northwestern on Saturday — though you wouldn't have been blamed if you were worried about that sort of thing happening.

With the Wildcats down 10 to visiting Nevada at halftime in the season-opener, there were flashes of last season's nightmarish start, the back-to-back losses to Western Michigan and Illinois State in the campaign's first two games.

Though it surely took long enough, Northwestern showed up late against Nevada, Clayton Thorson scoring a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns on quarterback sneaks to send the Cats to a 31-20 win in the opener at Ryan Field.

Thorson had himself a day, passing for a career-high 352 yards and tossing two touchdown passes. He also rushed in for the go-ahead score in the final five and a half minutes, adding a second touchdown carry a few minutes later to seal the win.

Northwestern had some glaring miscues in the first half, missing a field goal and fumbling in the red zone. In the third quarter, a drive that reached inside the 10-yard line ended only in a field goal. The inability to finish off drives kept Nevada in front. Thorson's second touchdown pass of the day tied the game at 17 in the third quarter, but after the Cats' defense came away with a goal-line interception, Thorson pitched an ugly pick of his own, setting up a field goal that put Nevada back in front 20-17.

But Thorson and the Cats followed with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that went all the way to fourth and goal on the 1-yard line, where Pat Fitzgerald elected to go for it instead of tying the game with a field goal. Thorson kept it and plunged in to give the Cats their first lead since the first quarter.

The Northwestern defense — which allowed only three points after halftime — forced a turnover on downs on the ensuing possession, stonewalling the Nevada quarterback on fourth down. A bold Thorson deep ball on third down set the Cats up on the doorstep again, and Thorson capped the scoring with his fourth total touchdown of the game.

It certainly wasn't a pretty win, as the folks in the desert projected Northwestern to win by more than three touchdowns. But avoiding a start like last year's wil go a long way in a season of high hopes for the Cats.

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

Is Charles Leno Jr. right long-term fit at left tackle for Bears?

“I know if I take care of my business out here, everything else will take care of itself," Bears offensive tackle Charles Leno Jr. told CSNChicago.com when asked about the personal significant of the 2017 season.

Leno Jr. is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, and since Jermon Bushrod injured his back in Week 3 of the the 2015 season, Leno, Jr. has been the starter at left tackle in the 29 games since. Leno Jr. has established himself as consistent and durable, but public opinions on him outside of Halas Hall cast doubt on how high the ceiling is for the final (seventh round) draft pick of the Phil Emery regime.

Pro Football Focus’ grading system has its fans and detractors. While the Boise State product showed improvement in 2016 (70.4 grade) compared to 2015 (46.1), they ranked him 44th out of 64 offensive tackles. Also, according to PFF, Leno Jr. and right tackle Bobby Massie allowed 73 quarterback pressures and committed 14 penalties, while grading out poorly in the run game as a tandem.

Yet there’s also the overall picture to look at. The team allowed just 26 sacks, ninth-fewest in the NFL despite three different starting quarterbacks. Football Outsiders ranked the Bears offensive line seventh in pass protection and eighth in rushing. But critics of the two tackles will say the main reason for those rankings is the strength in the middle, between Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, and Kyle Long (for half a season, at least).  Not that Leno, Jr. hasn’t been closely evaluated already, but as his future, and payday, looms. It’ll be an even more interesting watch this season.

“I’m always ready to take that next step,” said the 6-foot-3, 310-pounder who’ll turn 26 when the Bears host the Vikings on Monday, Oct. 9. “ Every year you can take a step. Whether it’s your rookie year to your second year, third year to your fourth, or ninth year to your tenth, you’re always trying to take another step, always get better. That’s my job right now, that’s my goal.”

And he’ll have to do it under his third different offensive line coach in his four years, as Jeremiah Washburn takes over for Dave Magazu. Leno Jr. told me there have been mostly minor tweaks and adjustments when it comes to new position coaches. He was most noticeable (that’s a bad thing), late in the season, when he was beaten a few times for sacks, but that didn’t do much to cloud his overall performance in his boss’ mind.

[MORE: Can the Bears win 'Nervous Season'?]

“To be honest, Leno was a real pleasant surprise, really exceeded expectations there,” general manager Ryan Pace said back on Jan. 4. “And I thought as he gained confidence, he got better and better. He’s very athletic, he’s long, got good balance. So (he) did very well. We have positive vibes about him coming out of the season.”

Leno, Jr. will make about $1.8 million this season as he finishes out his rookie deal. But as he enters this contract year, there are currently 14 left tackles in the NFL (including all the so-called “elite”) making an average of at least $10 million annually on their current contracts:

PLAYER | TEAM | MONEY

Trent Williams (WSH), $13.6

Russell Okung (LAC), $13.25

Terron Armstead (NO), $13

Tyron Smith (DAL), $12.2

Cordy Glenn (BUF), $12

Eric Fisher (KC), $12

David Bakhtiari (GB), $12

Riley Reiff (MIN), $11.75

Joe Thomas (CLE), $11.5

Andrew Whitworth (LAR), $11.25

Matt Kalil (CAR), $11.1

Anthony Castonzo (IND), $10.95

Jason Peters (PHI), $10.8

Nate Solder (NE), $10

Other left tackles averaging less than $10 million annually on their current deals include Houston’s Duane Brown, San Francisco’s Joe Staley, Atlanta's Jake Matthews and Tennessee’s Taylor Lewan. Plus, keep in mind here that Reiff (Detroit) and Kalil (Minnesota) were first-round picks by Bears' NFC North rivals deemed not good enough to keep around. Yet they still found believers willing to write a big check elsewhere.  If not the Bears, Leno, Jr. may find similar interest elsewhere with a season comparable to 2016. It’s all in the eyes of the beholder. 11 years ago, Pace and the Saints made Northwestern’s Zach Strief a seventh round pick, and he’s hung around — not becoming a starter until his sixth season, yet being a linchpin at right tackle since.

From the above list, only the 29-year-old Solder is a pending free agent, and it’s hard to see the Patriots letting him walk, though Bill Belichick has done stranger things that’ve worked out in the end. Leno Jr. is the next-best option, because the others really aren’t. Oakland’s Donald Penn is 34, while the Chargers’ Chris Hairston, the Ravens’ James Hurst, and the Dolphins’ Sam Young have all started less than half time they’ve been in the league.

If the Bears let Leno Jr. walk and look toward the draft, Notre Dame senior Mike McGlinchey is generally regarded as the highest-rated left tackle heading into the fall with Texas’ Connor Williams, Orlando Brown of Oklahoma, Mitch Hyatt of Clemson and Martinas Rankin of Mississippi State owning various first and second-round grades. 

Regardless of how the upcoming season goes, figure the Bears will still have needs to be addressed in the draft, “best available” or not. If he doesn’t have a believer in Pace already, another step forward by Leno Jr. could earn himself a payday, and stability — personally, and for the team as they figure out how to get the best protection possible for their quarterback of the future.