Football: Writers Ruminate on Northwestern’s 0-2 start

Pat+Fitzgerald+shouts+during+Northwestern%E2%80%99s+game+against+Illinois+State.+If+the+Wildcats+fall+to+Duke%2C+it+will+be+their+first+0-3+start+since+1992.

Daily file photo by Zack Laurence

Pat Fitzgerald shouts during Northwestern’s game against Illinois State. If the Wildcats fall to Duke, it will be their first 0-3 start since 1992.

Daily Sports Staff


Football


1. The Wildcats are coming off one of their best seasons in program history but now find themselves off to a sluggish 0-2 start. What has been the biggest change from a year ago that has led to this unexpected start?

Tim Balk: The offense has fallen apart. Which is not to say that it was good last year — it wasn’t. But the Cats’ offense has looked 2015-Boston-College-level bad (the Eagles went 3-9 despite boasting the nation’s best defense) through two weeks. The NU offensive line, though hardly a bright spot last year, has performed shockingly poorly. Sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson and junior running back Justin Jackson have both struggled to make plays behind an offense line with more holes than the plot line of a Star Wars prequel.

The defense hasn’t been spectacular and appears to have regressed a bit from where it was at the same point last fall, but it is the offense that is killing the Cats right now.

When staying on the field and sustaining drives against FCS puffballs and defensively suspect MAC teams pose a significant challenge, there’s a problem. And right now NU has a problem.

Max Schuman: The defense hasn’t been as game-changing as a year ago.

The offense has been bad thus far, yes, but is it really worse than it was a year ago, when the Cats ranked 116th in the country in yards per game and every third-and-long felt like a death sentence for NU? Perhaps so when accounting for the opposition, but through the prism of last season’s performance, the Cats’ offensive struggles are almost expected.

Thanks to the offense, NU flirted with disaster frequently last season, only to be bailed out far more often than not by a tremendous, playmaking defense. A lot of big names from that defense are gone, and the ones that remain — junior linebacker Anthony Walker, junior safety Godwin Igwebuike and now-injured senior cornerback Matthew Harris — haven’t made any impact plays through two weeks. If last season’s team had this version of the defense, one that prevents big plays by opponents but rarely makes any of its own, it would have struggled to be bowl-eligible. That alternate reality is playing out in 2016.

Max Gelman: When you look around the roster, the Wildcats’ depth is just thinner at almost every position group. There were some huge departures over the offseason — Dean Lowry, Dan Vitale, Deonte Gibson, Nick VanHoose, to name a few — and, coupled with some freak injures, it’s left Northwestern struggling to find adequate replacements.

Right now, the lack of depth is hurting worst at perhaps NU’s strongest group from a year ago: the secondary. Junior cornerback Keith Watkins II tore his ACL a few weeks before the season started and Matthew Harris is out for the Cats’ game against Duke on Saturday. That leaves sophomore Montre Hartage, who has just two career starts under his belt, as the No. 1 cornerback. The cornerbacks are so thin that third-string quarterback, and baseball pitcher, Dan Kubiuk was taking reps at the position during practice this week.

Until Harris returns, NU can only hope for the best from the inexperienced secondary.

Bobby Pillote: Walker isn’t playing like he did last year. It was an all-too-common sight in 2015 to see the star middle linebacker inhabiting opponents’ backfields. This season, Walker is having trouble reading gaps and getting off blocks to make play.

Of course, it’s possible — likely even — that it’s not solely his fault. The 2016 iteration of the NU defense sorely misses departed studs Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson at defensive end. Walker says more than anybody how important the defensive line in front of him is, and that unit isn’t making his life easy this season like it was a year ago. That burley senior CJ Robbins supplanted slighter senior Ifeadi Odenigbo at defensive end on this week’s depth chart says all you need to know about the Cats’ defensive struggles, especially against the run, thus far.

Maybe Walker can get his season going against Duke, the team he demolished with 19 total tackles a year ago. He’ll have to for NU to have a shot at climbing back to a winning record.

Ben Pope: The offensive line has gone from shaky in 2015 to downright awful through two games in 2016, which has created ripple effects throughout the entire offense.

The team’s two most experienced starters a year ago, Geoff Mogus and Matt Frazier, are both graduated, leaving a guard with six career starts prior to this season in Connor Mahoney as the captain of the line and a less-than-superb cast of linemen around him.

When Clayton Thorson dropped back to pass — something he has admittedly been asked to do too much — he faced an immediately collapsing pocket. When Justin Jackson ran outside, the linemen lost their blocks in the shift, and Jackson found nowhere to go, especially against Illinois State.

In order for the Cats to be the conservative, grind-it-out, running offense they want — and need — to be, they must get a stronger play from the offensive line.

2. Northwestern’s schedule doesn’t get any easier with Big Ten play just around the corner. With the 0-2 start, what is this team’s ceiling?

Pope: The ceiling is probably around 8-4 — the games at Ohio State and Iowa are pretty much unwinnable. But Michigan State has yet to prove itself convincingly this year, and the Cats do draw other Big Ten powers Wisconsin and Nebraska at home.

Realistically, though, the most likely outcome — assuming the Cats play at their talent level, which they haven’t through two games — is now 5-7, which would be the third time in four years they’ve finished with that record. Mark down Duke, Purdue and Illinois as “should win” games, Minnesota and Indiana as “could win” games, and Wisconsin and Michigan State as “possible to win” games.

Balk: 10-2. I mean, in theory right? In practice, it’s still higher than folks might think. There’s plenty of talent to go around, with stars like Walker and Igwebuike still suiting up at Ryan Field. And that disastrous offensive line is made up of guys who have shown they can block in the past. Blake Hance, Mahoney and Eric Olson are not scrubs, despite how they may have looked against Illinois State.

The Cats have lost their mojo, but the pieces are still there. Thorson and Jackson took NU to 10 wins last year, and they could lead NU to a winning season again. But the Cats need to get their swagger back. The offensive line needs to get going. And, quite frankly, offensive coordinator Mick McCall needs to call better games. If those things happen, NU could win seven or eight games.

Schuman: The ceiling is something like 7-5 at this point, and that’s if the Cats play for the rest of the year at the level most people expected from them coming into this season. The most optimistic prognostications coming into 2016 took wins over Western Michigan and Illinois State to the bank, so with those games in the rearview mirror, expectations need to be adjusted accordingly.

The talent level is still high on defense, and after a dismal showing against the Redbirds, NU has nowhere to go but up offensively. The Cats were only a few key plays away from starting the season 2-0, and if the team recaptures last season’s magic, they could string together some wins against the middle class of the Big Ten.

The early returns have been bleak for the year, and games at Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa loom as almost guaranteed losses down the line. But I can see NU winning the rest of its games to get to seven wins if it gets its act together.

Gelman: The Wildcats’ ceiling is caving in, and I seriously think this team will struggle to finish .500. Every opponent Northwestern plays from here is arguably better than both Western Michigan and Illinois State (except maybe Purdue), and if the offensive line continues to struggle, the Cats won’t be able to win games.

Losing to a competitive Western Michigan team was fine. The Broncos are an up-and-coming team with a young coach who will likely be headed to a Power-5 school sooner or later, and the Cats only lost because of a freak fumble at the end of the game. But falling to Illinois State is inexcusable. Coach Pat Fitzgerald can talk about how NU’s biggest issue is not making big plays to close out games, but when your team scores just seven points against an FCS opponent — one week after Valparaiso, a team that’s won just nine games over the eight seasons, put up 13 on the Redbirds — something needs to change.

Until that change happens, this team’s ceiling is 6-6. But it will be a massive climb just to get there.

Pillote: Games against Duke, Nebraska, Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota, Illinois and maybe even Wisconsin are all winnable affairs. Generously, that puts NU at 7-5, but the margin for error is pretty slim now.

The team won’t continue to play as poorly as it has the past two weeks. The defense will figure itself out, Justin Jackson will be Justin Jackson, and Thorson will complete more than 50 percent of his passes. It’s likely we see the Cats become more aggressive from here on out — just look at all the fourth down conversions Fitzgerald has attempted thus far — and that could lead to a surprising second-half resurgence for this team.

3. Can Northwestern reverse their fortunes and salvage their season? (Or, how would you define a salvaged season?)

Pillote: NU must make a bowl game. That’s the standard Fitzgerald has set for the program, and failing to meet for the third time out of four seasons is unacceptable.

But getting there won’t be so easy. There are real problems with this team — from a shockingly bad offensive line to Thorson’s lack of development to a critical depletion of depth and talent on the defensive side of the ball. The Cats’ could just as easily be 2-0 right now, given how the first two games ended, but those fundamental issues would still be present.

I won’t count out substantial improvement by the defense, but I expect the offense to remain suspect all season long. If NU can play like it did last year — and get a little bit lucky — they should be able to reach 6-6 or 7-5 and sneak into a bowl game.

Pope: The Cats have enough underperforming playmakers right now that they have plenty of room to improve. It hasn’t shown on paper, but this year’s cast of receivers is more explosive than last year’s, and Thorson looks more comfortable — if not more effective — passing. Walker will learn as the season goes on how to be dangerous despite opponents scheming against him, too.

But there are major flaws in this team. Last year’s vaunted secondary, which forced teams to play into Walker and Dean Lowry’s hands, is a shell of its former self. The offensive line has shown no signs of improvement. Kicker Jack Mitchell is completely unreliable.

The Cats can obviously — and probably will — play better than they have in these two games. Whether or not they can play well enough to “salvage the season” to fans’ liking, however, is uncertain.

Balk: When you lose to an FCS team, a bowl appearance represents a salvaged season. Can NU reverse its fortunes and make one? As I indicated in my response to question two, I don’t think it’s out of the question. But I certainly would not bet on it. The Cats are in a bad place right now, and while they’re built to play close games with big bad Big Ten teams, it’s hard to imagine NU winning many games in conference play given how it has fared so far. Presently, the Cats do not look remotely like a bowl team. We’ll see if anything has changed when they take on Duke.

Gelman: I agree with Tim that a salvaged season would mean a bowl appearance. However, are there six wins on Northwestern’s schedule right now? Duke’s not in a great place right now either, and Purdue is Purdue, so you can give the Wildcats those two games for sure. Minnesota’s not great either and Illinois is still rebuilding, so say a couple bounces fall NU’s way and it takes those games too. And Indiana’s defense is terrible — the offensive line could, in theory, have their best game of the season. That equals five.

That leaves five games where the Cats have an opportunity to steal a win from a much better opponent: Ohio State, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Nebraska. We can pretty much rule out the first three, as they’re all on the road against currently ranked teams. Wisconsin’s also pretty good, but NU has played them close each of the last two seasons so there may be an opportunity there.

Nebraska currently represents the best shot the Cats have to turn their season around. It will be tough, as the Cornhuskers are better than they were last season when NU won in Lincoln. But if the Cats win, and assuming all the other games I mentioned go their way, one can tentatively hope this team will make a bowl.

Schuman: College football is weird, and a team can change a lot from the start of the season to the end (Stanford, 2016 Rose Bowl champion and Week 1 upset loser to NU last season, says hello). It’s impossible to rule out salvaging the season once you accept that, however you want to define salvaging the season.

Getting to bowl eligibility should be the immediate target for fans this season, and I find it hard to believe that the Cats have no chance to get that done in a largely mediocre Big Ten West. Combining the offensive showing from Week 1 against the Broncos with the defensive showing Week 2 against Illinois State, which were generally good enough, is probably enough to compete with the Minnesotas and Nebraskas of the world. That’s what it’ll take to get back to .500, and I think that’s within reach.

That said, NU needs a win Saturday against Duke. 0-3 would be a bad look for this team.

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