Football: Homecoming loss leaves Northwestern’s offense seeking answers


Daniel Tian/Daily Senior Staffer

Clayton Thorson gets tackled. The junior quarterback passed for 142 yards in Northwestern’s homecoming loss.

Tim Balk, Gameday Editor


Northwestern’s offense has been here before.

In an echo of the September struggles of 2016, when the unit hit its nadir in a 9-7 loss to FCS program Illinois State, the Wildcats’ scoring attack floundered in a 31-7 homecoming loss to No. 4 Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) on Saturday. Only a garbage-time touchdown spared NU (2-3, 0-2) its first home shutout since 1999.

The loss leaves the Cats seeking an offensive turnaround like last year’s. They bounced back from a 1-3 start a season ago thanks to an offense that caught fire in October, posting 38 points in a win over Iowa and 54 in a shootout victory at Michigan State.

But the holes NU must shore up appeared vividly exposed against the Nittany Lions. Coach Pat Fitzgerald said much of the difficulty began on the offensive line.

“On offense, you’ve got to operate as one heartbeat,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ve got to be able to be in rhythm. It starts up front. And when we’ve got some breakdowns … in certain situations that are absolutely critical for us being able to sustain drives and be successful, it just kills momentum.”

The Cats moved the ball with some success in the first half — until they hit midfield. Four times NU crossed the 50. But four times a promising drive went off the rails in the Nittany Lions’ territory.

On the Cats’ opening drive of the game, junior quarterback Clayton Thorson threw an interception at the Penn State 28-yard-line. On their second, Thorson fumbled at the 41 moments after senior running back Justin Jackson gained a chunk of yardage on a long run. NU ended the game minus-3 in turnover margin.

A five-play, 52-yard second-quarter drive ended with Thorson gobbled up on an attempt to convert a fourth-and-three on a speed option.

Fitzgerald said the Cats had “what they wanted” on the play as the Nittany Lions loaded the box, but Thorson was dragged down for a six-yard loss.

“Saw a bunch of guys on the line of scrimmage,” Thorson said. “We had a good play called. Just got to execute.”

NU’s offensive execution continued to lag throughout the contest. The first half ended with a Thorson interception on a prayer toward the end zone as the clock ran out. And a tough third quarter saw the unit go three-and-out on its first three drives, allowing Penn State to stretch its lead to 24-0 by the start of the fourth.

The Nittany Lions rolled to the finish line with Thorson and Jackson on the sideline late.

“We had opportunities there early in the game and didn’t take advantage of it,” said Jackson, who finished the game 17 yards short of the program’s career rushing record. “We’ve just got to tighten up, and when we get in the scoring zone, we’ve just got to execute. We haven’t done that the past few games.”

The Cats’ offense showed the ability to turn things around last year. But already two games into Big Ten play, the clock is ticking for the unit to find its groove.

After the difficult day, Fitzgerald said the team will go back to the drawing board.

“We’ve got to figure it out,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve got to come back swinging, because we’ve put our backs against the wall.”

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