Football: Three takeaways from Northwestern’s 24-7 win over Western Illinois


Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose and Chi Chi Ariguzo attempt to bring down a Western Illinois ball-carrier. The Wildcats won 24-7 despite giving up more total yards than they gained.

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor

1. If Northwestern wins, it’s going to have to win ugly

Northwestern has drawn plenty of criticism following Saturday’s win over Western Illinois, and much of it is deserved. The offensive scheme is still too reliant on checkdowns and power runs, and looks mostly incapable of springing big plays. Fans hoping for the Wildcats to take out their anger from two early season losses by stomping on an overmatched opponent went home Saturday disappointed. But despite the team’s continued struggles, there were glimmers of hope in Saturday’s performance, with NU laying the blueprint for how the 2014 team might surprise some folks. To put it simply, it’s not going to be pretty.

This team isn’t hanging 50 on a Big Ten defense any time soon. The Cats will have to win the field position battle, as they did on Saturday (thanks to forced turnovers and a brilliant performance from junior punter Chris Gradone, NU’s starting field position was its own 46, while Western Illinois’ was its own 20). They will have to bend but not break defensively (despite being out-gained by nearly 100 yards, the Cats managed to give up just seven points Saturday). They will have to manufacture points by flipping the field with turnovers. Perhaps most importantly, they will have to rely on the run game. Not the I-formation, run it up the gut run game, but the one that got freshmen Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault in space outside the tackles and let them make the kinds of plays that were missing the first two weeks (NU’s longest runs against Cal and Northern Illinois were 11 and 13 yards, respectively. Against Western Illinois, each of the top three running backs had a carry longer than that).

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the game he was “insulted” at the suggestion NU can’t win Big Ten games. We’ll see if he’s right. But if the Cats do win against their conference foes, it’ll probably look a lot like it did on Saturday.

2. A depleted team gets weaker

After the injury bug hit the Cats hard last season, it was hard to imagine it coming back again with a vengeance this year. But it seems like that’s exactly what’s happening. After junior wide receiver Cameron Dickerson left on Saturday with an injury, NU was missing its top three receivers. Thanks to injury and suspension, the Cats were down both starting defensive tackles, forcing junior defensive end Dean Lowry inside, where he acquitted himself well (and opened up a spot outside for sophomore defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who had one of the best games of his career). Senior safety Ibraheim Campbell and senior linebacker Collin Ellis left Saturday’s game with injuries as well.

And although the defense played well for the most part, holding Western Illinois scoreless after its first drive of the game, there were definite areas of concern. Junior cornerback Nick VanHoose had several nice pass breakups and an interception, but Western Illinois quarterback Trenton Norvell picked on the secondary at times, particularly sophomore cornerback Matthew Harris. The pass rush managed four sacks, but other than that Norvell had plenty of time to throw on many of his drop-backs. And credit to the Cats for being opportunistic, but they can’t expect to force and recover three fumbles every week. The defense has without question been the better of NU’s two sides of the ball so far this year. But if Ellis or Campbell miss significant time, or the team picks up more injuries, it may not be able to withstand the upcoming avalanche.

3. Time for a youth movement?

Despite the positive signs the Cats showed Saturday, the road ahead looks bumpy. NU will be heavy underdogs at undefeated Penn State and at home against Wisconsin. NU then faces conference heavyweights Nebraska and Iowa after a trip to Minnesota. NU could very plausibly be 1-7 or 2-6 before Michigan comes to Ryan Field. If the season goes south, it will be time to look to the future. Saturday’s freshman-led win provided the first taste of what the future of this program looks like, and there could well be more on the horizon. Don’t be surprised, for instance, if we see younger quarterbacks Zack Oliver and/or Matt Alviti take over at some point to get reps for next season. Other freshmen, including tight end Garrett Dickerson, also might be given the opportunity to gain valuable experience for the future.

Twitter: @JosephDiebold
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