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.”