Rapid Reaction: Northwestern 24, Western Illinois 7

Rohan Nadkarni, Reporter

What went right: True freshman running back Justin Jackson had himself a game. Buoyed by a solid run-blocking offensive line, Jackson showed an adept ability at making the first defender miss. He bursted through arm tackles and flashed big-play ability en route to 92 yards on 21 carries.

The Wildcats’ defense also stepped up. After the Leathernecks opened the game with a touchdown drive, NU’s defense tightened. Western Illinois’s offense racked up yards on some inventive play calls, but often stalled just passed midfield. The secondary impressed at times, and junior cornerback Nick VanHoose had his best game of the season. Redshirt freshman Godwin Igwebuike stepped in for an injured Ibraheim Campbell at safety, and Igwebuike did an adequate job replacing a senior leader.

Sophomore Ifeadi Odenigbo consistently found himself in the Leathernecks’ backfield, disrupting the passing game and harassing the quarterback. He was a menace, racking up two sacks and three forced fumbles.

Special teams was mostly outstanding. Outside of a couple busted punt coverages, NU dominated the the third phase of the game. The Cats controlled field position, blocked a punt and a field goal, and junior punter Chris Gradone continued to improve at his job, probably having his best game in a purple uniform.

What went wrong: Senior quarterback Trevor Siemian continued to struggle. He often chose the safe play as opposed to taking shots down the field. The Cats’ passing offense has lost all sense of excitement. It’s one thing to play safe — it’s another to be void of any big-play threat in the passing game. Come Big Ten season, NU will need to be able to throw the ball downfield if they hope to compete. On Saturday, Siemian’s performance was masked by opportune turnovers and a stingy defense.

Hot take: Would the Cats benefit from mixing another quarterback into their rotation? Pat Fitzgerald has routinely shot down the notion during practice, but it could jumpstart the passing game if Zack Oliver was removed from the “break-in-case-of-emergency glass” and actually found himself on the field.

What it means: NU didn’t exactly inspire confidence Saturday. It should have been an easy win all the way, so nothing was particularly impressive. A victory over Western Illinois does not solve all the problems that have made the Cats a 1-2 team heading into conference play. If we’re judging this team on the expectations set by Pat Fitzgerald after the Gator Bowl win, the Cats still have aways to go.

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