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.”
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.