Football: Three takeaways from Northwestern’s 20-14 victory over No. 17 Wisconsin

Running+back+Justin+Jackson+was+Northwestern%27s+best+offensive+player+Saturday.+The+freshman+rushed+for+162+yards+on+33+carries+in+the+Cats%27+20-14+win+over+Wisconsin.

Luke Vogelzang/The Daily Northwestern

Running back Justin Jackson was Northwestern's best offensive player Saturday. The freshman rushed for 162 yards on 33 carries in the Cats' 20-14 win over Wisconsin.

Joseph Diebold, Assistant Gameday Editor

1. You need a two-dimensional offense to beat Northwestern’s defense

It feels strange to say it after Melvin Gordon ran for a career-high 259 yards, but Northwestern’s run defense was pretty good on Saturday during NU’s 20-14 win over No. 17 Wisconsin. The Wildcats missed their assignments on a couple of big runs (one of which was aided by an uncalled hold on senior linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo, who was in position to make the play), but mostly they looked sharp, swarming the ball and tackling well. As importantly, they were able to totally shut down the Badgers’ passing attack, limiting quarterbacks Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave to 138 passing yards combined and intercepting four passes. Whenever the Badgers tried to throw deep, cornerbacks Nick VanHoose and Matthew Harris were up to the task.

The Cats’ success shutting down the pass put pressure on Wisconsin’s offense by forcing the Badgers to stay in running situations to move the ball. As soon as NU was able to push Wisconsin backwards at all, their offense stalled. This was best exemplified on the Badgers’ first drive of the fourth quarter. Wisconsin rode Gordon from its own 21 to the NU 16. But then Gordon was stopped for a one-yard loss on the next play, and his subsequent long run was wiped out by a holding penalty. At 2nd and 21, the drive was basically over. Two Stave incompletions later, the Badgers were punting. Last week, NU was able to focus on Penn State’s passing game because the Nittany Lions could never get any semblance of a running attack going. Big Ten teams will be able to get yards and score points against NU’s defense. But if they can’t pose a credible threat in both phases of offense, the Cats will keep grinding their way to victory.

2. Justin Jackson is the biggest weapon the offense has

NU’s offense can still feel frustratingly limited at times. The Cats leave points on the board far too often in the red zone, and senior quarterback Trevor Siemian’s inability to consistently hit receivers down the field forces the team into long, sustained drives, not a recipe for high point totals. If the defense doesn’t force four turnovers on Saturday, NU doesn’t win the game (the Cats are 14th in the nation in points allowed per game, which makes the offense’s job easier).

But the play of freshman Justin Jackson, who has stepped into the featured running back role (he had 33 carries Saturday to just three for senior Treyvon Green), has really sparked the offense. Jackson’s ability to make the most out of every play, especially on first down runs, opens up the playbook for the Cats on later downs. Over and over against Wisconsin, Jackson would slip through a crease or break a tackle, turning a 2-yard gain into 6 or 8 yards. For a quarterback who throws short as much as Siemian, that can make all the difference between a conversion and a punt. Make no mistake: NU is still winning on the strength of its defense and special teams. But the freshman has made life a little easier for everyone else around him with his impressive running.

3. The NU coaching staff deserves lots of credit for this turnaround

NU’s coaches rightfully took heat for the way the team played the first two weeks. The Cats looked unprepared and disinterested and some of the schematic decisions were questionable. But if fans and media members are going to criticize after two unexpected losses, they should praise equally after two unexpected wins. And NU’s coaches have been brilliant the last two weeks. The team has dialed up the aggressiveness at key times, putting pressure on quarterbacks and confusing defenses, and has made schematic changes, including more outside zone runs, that put its players in positions to succeed. The play-action pass to Dan Vitale was a perfect twist on the power runs that have baffled observers for the first month of the season. And while body language can be overrated in evaluating teams, the difference between the two teams on Saturday at the end of the third quarter was striking. NU’s players were together at midfield, jumping up and down, while Wisconsin’s walked individually to the other end. It was just one moment, but it felt symbolic of the strides this team has made.

NU’s coaches deserve credit for two other factors that are less-discussed in evaluating coaching than play-calling and motivation but are as, if not more, important. The first is players’ week-to-week improvement. Junior punter Chris Gradone had a miserable week one performance. Since then, he has made massive strides every week. The Cats won the field position battle again on Saturday, a victory that proved important from Wisconsin’s very first drive. The Badgers started on their own 6, and went 74 yards but came away with no points thanks to an interception in the end zone. Gradone and other players who have gotten better in the last month naturally deserve much of the credit for their own improvements, but NU’s coaches do as well.

The second factor is instilling the team with a “next man up” mentality. Contrast the way last year’s team seemed woefully unprepared at times to deal with injuries to key players with the performances of redshirt freshman linebacker Anthony Walker and redshirt freshman safety Godwin Igwebuike the past two weeks. Each freshman was making their first career start in the place of an injured senior leader on NU’s defense, and each made huge plays at key times to spark the Cats to victory. Again, those players deserve the bulk of the credit for being prepared to step up in the absence of the starters ahead of them on the depth chart. But it is a sign of good coaching that NU can lose its best players to injury and not worry about a significant performance dropoff.

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Twitter: @JosephDiebold

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