Football: Three takeaways from Northern Illinois’ 23-15 victory over Northwestern

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor

1. Northwestern’s strengths aren’t good enough to mask its weaknesses

The story of Saturday’s 23-15 loss to Northern Illinois was one step forward, two steps back for Northwestern. For every time NU’s defense stood tall and forced NIU to punt in the first half, the Wildcats’ offense could not muster anything. For every on-target Trevor Siemian pass, there was a drop or a wayward throw to follow it. For every player who stepped up (Kyle Prater had his best game in purple, Deonte Gibson blew up a screen pass and then forced a fumble on a sack during the next play) there was one who didn’t (C.J. Robbins was ejected for throwing a punch, Treyvon Green couldn’t find any running room to the tune of 31 yards on 10 carries).

(Northwestern drops second straight, losing to Northern Illinois 23-15)

Ultimately, in the past two game NU has not been good enough at the things it’s good at to cover up the things it’s bad at. Siemian has been bombarded with pressure, and the offensive line hasn’t cleared any holes for the running backs. The wide receivers have been plagued by drops and have not done enough with the balls they’ve caught to overcome the missed opportunities. The defense has been generally solid, but has shot itself in the foot by allowing long passes, including a 59-yard touchdown to Da’Ron Brown that gave the Huskies a lead they would not relinquish. Teams know NU can’t blow them away in any single phase of the game, and failing to create big advantages in one area has kept NU from manufacturing little ones in all other areas.

2. Whither Venric?

At this point, it looks like NU will go as far as its defense can take it this season, because the offense hasn’t done the team any favors. The Cats have scored five touchdowns in two games, with one coming late against NIU when the game was all but decided, and another coming on a trick play. NU punted eight times (credit to a much-improved Chris Gradone for minimizing the impact of that as best he could) on Saturday. Among the myriad problems has been a lack of explosion plays.

I thought the Cats wouldn’t miss Venric Mark much this season. But Mark did give the offense and special teams a different dimension due to his ability to get to the edge quickly and break any play for a touchdown. Other than two 54-yard touchdown passes, one in each game, NU’s longest play this season is 25 yards. At no point during Saturday’s slog of a first half were the Cats even able to flip the field and give themselves a chance at a short drive. It was not for lack of trying; one long pass attempt was intercepted in the end zone on an excellent play by NIU’s Paris Logan and another one was dropped by Miles Shuler. In the running game, the sweeps that allowed Mark to get into space were painful to watch on Saturday, as the line couldn’t get any push forward and the backs didn’t have the speed to turn the corner. Unless the offense can find a way to start getting yardage in chunks, the defense will have to continue, as it did in the first half against NIU, to play lights-out for the Cats to win games.

3. The path to six wins goes uphill from here

Last year, Cal gave up 52 points to Ohio State, 55 to Oregon, 62 to USC and 63 to Stanford. Northern Illinois gave up 35 to Idaho, 39 to Eastern Illinois, and 47 to Bowling Green. NU has hardly faced the 1985 Bears in its first two games and yet is averaging 19.5 points. The Cats now get a much-needed bye week to get healthy and attempt to work out their kinks, but bye weeks aren’t supposed to be much-needed two weeks into the season. If NU can’t beat Western Illinois, it should just skip the rest of the season. But even assuming the Cats take care of business against the Leathernecks, the road to bowl eligibility will be a steep one. Games against Purdue and Illinois are likely the only ones in which NU will be comfortably favored. Finding three more wins on the schedule will be a difficult exercise without massive improvements.

For all of last season’s failings, the Cats fairly could claim they were unlucky. Absurd late-game execution from the opposing team cost NU games against Nebraska and Michigan, and the Cats played Iowa even in regulation on the road. Luck has hardly been the problem this year. Cal escaped Evanston with a win even though the Cats weren’t penalized a single time. NU didn’t lose any of its three fumbles against the Huskies. One bowlless season for a program like NU can rightly be called an aberration. But if the Cats can’t rally, and make it two years without a bowl game in a row, athletic director Jim Phillips will have some tough decisions to make.

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