QB Watkins struggles in first start

Colin Becht

The fairy tale beginning to Evan Watkins’ career, a Chicago-area kid playing Northwestern’s main rival in Wrigley Field, didn’t go as planned for the redshirt freshman quarterback.

Watkins completed just 10 of 20 passes for 135 yards with no touchdowns and one interception in Northwestern’s 48-27 loss to Illinois at Wrigley Field. Watkins was also sacked three times, one of them resulting in a fumble recovered by the Illini.

Watkins said part of his struggles, especially related to the sacks, came from not making check downs to secondary and tertiary routes quick enough.

“It’s on me,” Watkins said. “When our main progression in the route is not there, it’s my job to move on and get the ball to somebody else that is open.”

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said although the game speed caught Watkins off guard early, he adjusted to the rate of play throughout the game.

“In your first collegiate game – you can ask Danny (Persa), Mike (Kafka), C.J. (Bachér), you can go all the way back – you try to talk to the guys about how much faster it’s going to be and the sense of urgency you need to have,” Fitzgerald said. “After the first couple series, he settled in so I thought he handled the in-game speed pretty well as it went along.”

Watkins agreed that having played a full game will help him grow for Saturday’s game at Wisconsin.

“The experience last week is really going to help, really transform this week in practice and into the game,” he said. “Without a doubt, I’m pretty sure I’ll feel a lot more comfortable this week.”

In a rarity for the Cats, NU was unable to move the chains on third down with its usual regularity. The Cats entered Saturday’s game against Illinois with a 51 percent success rate on third downs, yet converted just 2-of-10 against the Illini. Fitzgerald said inefficiency was especially costly in the second half, during which NU only had two drives of longer than three plays.

“We can’t go three-and-out; we can’t have the discrepancy in time of possession,” Fitzgerald said. “Our offense is built on time, rhythm and possessing the football. It doesn’t have to be 50 minutes to 10, but we have to possess the ball and wear people out with reps.”

The Cats were on offense for just 7:50 in the second half and failed to convert on any of their four third downs in the half.

“We have a specific goal in mind as quarterbacks to just consistently get half of what you need each down to keep yourself out of those third-and-long situations,” Watkins said. “When you’re in third-and-eight, eight plus, you just got to step up and make a play.”

Defense swings and misses

NU missed 27 tackles against Penn State two weeks ago, but on Saturday against Illinois, the number was even worse. The Cats missed 31 tackles, Fitzgerald said.

“It was angles and aggressiveness,” Fitzgerald said. “We had guys in the hole, we had guys unblocked in the hole and for whatever reason we patted our feet instead of being aggressive like we were against Iowa.”

NU surrendered 519 yards rushing to the Illini, including 330 to running back Mikel Leshoure, a new Illinois school record. The Illini gained 261 of their 519 rushing yards on just eight plays, including five plays of more than 20 yards.

While the Illini rushed the ball 70 times compared to just 14 pass attempts, Fitzgerald said the Cats had the right formations and schemes to stuff the run.

“We had enough guys in the box,” Fitzgerald said. “It was about tackling and fitting right, kind of the A-B-C of defense: You have to fit right, get off blocks and tackle. If you can’t get through A-B-C, then D through Z is going to be bad, and that’s what happened.”

Junior safety Brian Peters agreed that defense’s inability to tackle came from poor form rather than schemes.

“It’s just us trusting our technique,” he said. “It’s very technical-based. We’ve got to wrap up.”

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