Chris Johnson
By (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Oct 19, 2013

EVANSTON, Ill — A loss to Ohio State was not unexpected. Dropping a second game in a row at Wisconsin a week later was more predictable. Northwestern had fallen against the two best teams on its schedule, but its hopes of contending for a Big Ten championship were not gone. They had important November games against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State remaining. The Wildcats could still win the Legends Division.

They just needed to make a few tweaks here and there.

That optimistic viewpoint no longer exists. Not even amongst the most fervid Wildcats diehards. In an ugly, defensive slog, Northwestern managed just 17 points against Minnesota, who scored 20. It was the Wildcats’ third consecutive loss and, by the looks of it, the end of their conference championship hopes.

On Monday, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald tried to lighten the mood after the Wisconsin loss by having water balloons dropped on his players in a team meeting. The Wildcats followed with a strong week of practice and felt, after a game where players said they came out “flat,” that they had regained the positive energy they carried into the Ohio State game.

“I feel like we regained our energy level and our focus for this game,” senior receiver Christian Jones, who finished with five catches for 53 yards, said afterward. “It comes down to execution.”

Simply not executing – the same term Fitzgerald used to explain the Wisconsin loss – might not account for all the mistakes that took place during Northwestern’s putrid performance here Saturday. The Wildcats, playing without offensive stars Kain Colter and Venric Mark (who were both injured) produced just 94 rushing yards on 3.6 yards per carry and 234 passing yards. The offense, sluggish and ineffective last week at Wisconsin, was nearly as bad against the Gophers. The only difference? Minnesota’s defense is a few notches below Wisconsin’s, so the Wildcats’ struggles weren’t quite as obvious.

The defense did its part, limiting Minnesota’s rushing offense – which ranked fourth in the Big Ten entering Saturday – to 176 yards. Linebacker Collin Ellis played arguably his best game as a Wildcat to date; he finished with nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Cornerback Nick VanHoose led the team with 11 tackles, but was removed from the game in the second half after sustaining a big hit from Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson (VanHoose returned after suffering what Fitzgerald termed an “upper-body deal”).

The moment Northwestern’s sluggish performance turned into something more alarming came late in the third-quarter, when quarterback Trevor Siemian threw a pick-six on a slant pass intended for Jones that evoked memories of the momentum-turning third-quarter interception he threw against the Buckeyes.

“Obviously the choice to make that throw, I think he’d love to have back,” Fitzgerald said. “Trevor’s a guy that’s made a ton of plays for us and I fully expect that he’ll make them in the future.”

A Chris Hawthorne field goal early in the fourth quarter, three plays after Siemian fumbled while being sacked, put Minnesota up 10 points, which was right about when Northwestern fans started panicking, as their favorite team’s dream season appeared to be taking another negative turn. Their fears – despite Northwestern scoring 13 fourth-quarter points – were confirmed at the final whistle.

The Wildcats’ game at Iowa next week once looked like an easy victory. After Saturday’s loss, the chances Northwestern can beat the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium appear slim. This was a game Northwestern should have – had to, even – won. Minnesota was the easiest game left on its schedule. From here, the Wildcats face one tough contest after the next – from road games at Iowa and Nebraska to home contests against Michigan and Michigan State. Even the season-ending road game at Illinois, one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, could be tricky.

How many of those games can Northwestern win? If it plays like it did Saturday, maybe two, three at best? Throwing water balloons won’t fix the problems Northwestern has on its hands. Getting Colter and Mark back will help. So will winning the turnover battle; Northwestern was -3 in that department Saturday. The Wildcats can make adjustments on offense, too, but will it be enough to salvage their once-promising season?

A lack of execution may be one problem, but it doesn’t explain why Northwestern has, in the span of three weeks, regressed from a potential Big Ten championship contender to one of (if not the) the worst teams in its own division.

Proving that it’s more than that – that the bullish early season, division-champion-contending projections weren’t as ludicrous as they seem now – won’t be easy.

  • dwb

    Nice analysis.

  • Mark Wheaton

    Good work. I don’t see NU winning again this season. The wheels have completely fallen off the wagon. Cats are in a death-spiral of lost confidence and I don’t see this coaching staff correcting it.

    • Chris Johnson

      Eh. I would caution against losing all hope. Remember, getting Mark and Colter back (whenever that happens) will be a huge boost. The offense will be much better. Still think bowl eligibility is a very reasonable goal.

  • Jon Vander Woude

    The playcalling with Siemian has been atrocious. They get away from the running game and WR screens that their offense is built off of. Too much deep throwing exposes the OL, and Siemian holds the ball too long.

  • Glenlivet

    Just a thought, but I don’t see Minnesota or Northwestern as beating anyone on their schedule, with the exception of Illinois.

    • Jon Vander Woude

      You have to remember that NW with a healthy Colter and Mark went toe to toe with Ohio State, and the last two games have been without either of them.
      They get Colter back this week, who knows for Mark. But the key is keeping them both healthy.

  • Brett

    I don’t know why we have not thought about putting an extra blocker on the line. We are last in the big ten with most sacks given up 22; we can not seem to run the ball, and our passes are being knocked down. Oh yeah when we do a pass away it is typically dropped. I think putting another blocker on the line would help even if it only yields Trevor to stand in the pocket an extra second. All that will help him build his confidence and hopefully deliver a ball that our taller than normal receivers can come down with. I was at the WI game and watched the 4th quarter of the Minn game and saw a lot of un-catchable balls. Granted I think we all got used to Persa’s passes being in the bread basket. But no good will come when he leads a receiver and that receiver gets pulverized at the point of attack. Not to mention currently we have 4 receivers and trumpy into block he does not add a play action threat, he does well at picking up the blitz at times but is not always reading the blitz correctly. If we go 5 wide how confident are we that we are checking down to the 4th and 5th receivers. How many catches from Siemon to Jensen this year in real game time situations. No disrespect to Jensen but if we are not looking to him then pull a blocker in to help protect better.

    Granted this is all about Offense. The bigger issue I think is our lack of run defense. The offense did about all it could in the 4th to get 1st downs but when we know Minn is going to run the ball with 2 minutes up and they run off tackle for 12 yards that is plan embarrassing.

    Thoughts?

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