Football: Northwestern looks to rebound against Indiana State after season-opening loss


Josh Hoffman/Daily Senior Staffer

A Northwestern defenseman tries to tackle Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III. Walker III scored four touchdowns in last Friday’s matchup.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer


The high of last year’s division title and Citrus Bowl win is officially over. 

Northwestern football officially crossed into the new year, falling flat last Friday night against Michigan State. In a 38-21 loss, the Wildcats found some success on offense, but struggled on defense in defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s debut. NU failed to contain Spartan? running back Kenneth Walker III, who rushed for 264 yards and four touchdowns, and gave up 511 total yards of offense.

“It’s going to come down to a couple things,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said after the loss. “We missed bits of gaps, we were making arm tackles, we weren’t aggressive enough or we overran some things, that’s what it looked like at the end. Those fundamentals start and end with us as a coaching staff.”

This weekend, the Cats (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten) will face Indiana State (1-0), a Football Championship Series team who has never beaten a Power Five opponent. The Sycamores may present a challenge for the Cats’ rush defense after scoring its two offensive touchdowns on the ground — the biggest being a 44 yard touchdown from Michael Haupert — in a 26-21 season-opening win against Eastern Illinois.

The Cats’ main strength in the opener was their passing game, as senior quarterback Hunter Johnson went 30-for-43 for 283 passing yards with three touchdown passes. Meanwhile, Indiana State’s biggest asset against the Panthers was its pass defense. Junior defensive back Michael Thomas intercepted two passes and returned one for a touchdown, providing what could potentially be a good test of Johnson’s consistency under center. 

This matchup will be O’Neil’s first opportunity to adjust his scheme following the 17-point loss. 

“We put some things on tape that none of us are proud of,” Fitzgerald said. ”We’ve just got to work collectively to fix and the guys will do that and so will the staff.”

Looking forward, the Cats will need to improve their red zone defense and their offense’s performance near the end zone. 

Michigan State scored on all five of its red zone opportunities in last Friday’s opener, with four touchdowns and one field goal. In 2020, NU’s opponents went 19-for-27 on red zone attempts, and only eight of those 19 were touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Indiana State converted just one of its two red zone chances against Eastern Illinois — a three-yard touchdown run. But the Sycamores found other ways to score, with one interception returned for a touchdown, a 44-yard touchdown run, a safety and a field goal. 

Part of the Cats’ struggles to put up points were due to two missed field goals from graduate kicker Charlie Kuhbander, which NU will look to fix in its first non-conference matchup of 2021. 

“You get in the red zone and you’re only putting up points on the board 50% of the time, and then you flip it over, we’ve been one of the best red zone defenses around for a number of years,” Fitzgerald said. “To let them score every time down there is definitely something we will work our tails off to improve and fix.”

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @gablcarroll

Related Stories:

Football: After canceling its 2020 season, Indiana State poses unique challenge to Northwestern

Football: Northwestern looks to play to its standards against Indiana State

Football: Twenty years ago, Northwestern saw its world upended by the 9/11 attacks