Football: Writers ruminate on the Wildcats’ apparent dual identity, chance at bowl


Daily file photo by Sophie Mann

The Wildcats prepare for the snap at the line of scrimmage. Northwestern has a chance to move to .500 for the first time this season with a win at Michigan State.

Daily Sports Staff


The Daily’s football writers take a look at where the Wildcats stand as they near the midpoint of their season.

Northwestern has now lost to a MAC team (Western Michigan) and an FCS team (Illinois State) but also defeated a tough Big Ten opponent on the road (Iowa). Which team is the real Wildcats?

Max Schuman: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Both? Neither? The reality for NU is somewhere in the middle of the high against the Hawkeyes and the low against the Redbirds. The defense hasn’t touched the shutdown heights of last season’s squad, and the offense hasn’t proven reliable enough to consistently win. But the Cats were legitimately good against Iowa on both sides of the ball, and the final scoreline was only as tight as it was thanks to bad punt coverage.

We hadn’t seen sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson and the rest of the offense locked-in like they were against the Hawkeyes in any other game this season, which makes me skeptical that we’ll now see that every week from NU. But the Iowa game showed that when the team is clicking, it can win games you wouldn’t expect. Don’t be shocked if the Cats pull off another surprising victory this year.

Tim Balk: It’s entirely possible that the only time we haven’t seen the real Cats was when the team embarrassed itself against Illinois State. The Redbirds are not a good FCS team and have lost four straight since stunning the Cats. NU certainly did not play its best football against Western Michigan, but the loss is not horrible in retrospect; the Broncos enter this weekend undefeated and ranked No. 24.

The Cats have been a work in progress on both sides of the ball this fall, but the overall trend has been upward since the Illinois State loss. The offense seems to be finding its legs, and the performance against the Hawkeyes was the best of the season. More than likely, it was the real NU that stood up in Iowa City.

Max Gelman: Coming into this season, almost everyone looked at the October schedule and saw three tough games on the road against Big Ten West Champion Iowa, Big Ten Champion Michigan State and perennial powerhouse Ohio State. The former two teams have struggled so far this year, and NU clearly took advantage two weeks ago against the Hawkeyes.

The Cats’ first two losses of the season were brutal, but it’s not like NU was blown out in either contest. Realistically, the Cats are one-yard and four inches from having a 4-1 record with their only loss coming against a top-10 team. Sure, the three losses are a stain NU probably wishes it didn’t have on its record, but I believe the Cats are closer to the team we saw in Iowa City than the one we did in the first two weeks of September. A win Saturday would go a long way in affirming that.

In NU’s last game against the Hawkeyes, its defense put up its best performance of the season, led by Ifeadi Odenigbo’s four sacks. Can fans expect another good defensive showing from the Cats?

Ben Pope: Michigan State has yet to announce a starting quarterback for Saturday’s tilt and may well turn away from inefficient veteran Tyler O’Connor in favor of unproven commodities Damion Terry or Brian Lewerke. NU has struggled against agile running quarterbacks like Terry in the past, and Lewerke is seen by many as the quarterback of the future for Michigan State. Not knowing whom to gameplan against, combined with the costly injury absence of defensive lineman Xavier Washington, could spell trouble for the Cats’ defense.

Bobby Pillote: NU must be wary of the big play. Game planning against an uncertain quarterback and losing a starting pass rusher could leave the Cats vulnerable, though they do get junior safety Kyle Queiro back in the starting lineup this week. It may not be the best performance for the defense, but I think the talent of junior safety Godwin Igwebuike and junior linebacker Anthony Walker will shine through to hold an unsteady Michigan State attack to limited scoring opportunities.

Schuman: Fans should expect a strong defensive performance against Michigan State. The Spartans have lost three straight games, have question marks at every position group offensively and are holding a mid-season battle for the starting quarterback job going into Saturday’s game. Their best offensive showing this season was against Notre Dame, which is true for a lot of teams.

NU had a chance to rest up and prepare thoroughly over the bye week, and confidence should be at a new high after the Cats locked down an Iowa run game that had given them fits in the past. I’d expect NU to handle the punchless Michigan State attack without much trouble.

At 2-3, NU is improving but doesn’t seem to have it all together just yet. For example, in the win against Iowa the offense and defense both played well, but the special teams unit was notably underwhelming. What area do the Cats need to improve most to have a shot at a bowl game?

Balk: It’s all about the offensive line.

When the 2015 Wildcats were good — and at times they were extremely good — it was made possible by ragtag, injury-riddled offensive line playing above its pay grade. When the 2016 Cats have struggled, the offensive line has disappeared, often against less than stellar defenses.

The group looked better against Iowa, allowing NU to diversify its offensive playcalling in the win. Improvement will continue to be key entering a tough four-game stretch against highly competitive teams: Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Big Ten games are won in the trenches. NU’s offensive line will need to come to play in every one of those games.

Gelman: So far this season, one of the Cats’ biggest weaknesses has been on special teams. Although sophomore Flynn Nagel has re-energized the punt return game and Hunter Niswander has improved his punting from last year, NU seems to have a knack for giving up large returns to its opponents on punts and kickoffs. This became particularly evident in their last contest against Iowa, when punt returner Desmond King and the Hawkeyes 254 racked up return yards, nearly matching their total offensive output of 283 yards. Once the Cats figure things out on special teams — they’ve already improved enough on offense and defense to be a six win team — they will be a complete team in all three facets.

Pope: The secondary hasn’t surrendered huge numbers on the box scores yet, but it’s at risk to do so in the coming weeks. Matthew Harris was still healthy for the Western Michigan game, Nebraska used the absurd 10-yard gap NU’s cornerbacks were giving its receivers to pass underneath the coverage and none of Illinois State, Duke or Iowa featured prolific passing attacks. When Trae Williams, Alonzo Mayo and Montre Hartage are matched up against the likes of Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, Indiana’s Richard Lagow or even Purdue’s David Blough, however, they’ll need to grow up quickly.

Pillote: Clayton Thorson must be consistent. Strong performances from the sophomore quarterback could make the biggest difference in NU’s remaining schedule, especially against Indiana and Minnesota. Thorson is completing just 54.4 percent of his passes this season, barely an improvement from last season, but has a much more talented corps of wide receivers to work with than a year ago. If he can ignite an air attack and take some pressure off junior running back Justin Jackson, the Cats will achieve the offensive balance they need to make it back to a bowl game.

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