After yet another Northwestern loss, we take a look at the things that went right and the things that went wrong for the Wildcats.
The offense showed signs of life
We tweeted this after the game and got a bunch of, “but they only scored 10 plays!” responses. Frankly, that’s a far too simplistic answer. The Wildcats out-gained the Hawkeyes 329-to-305. They converted on 8-of-14 third downs and out-rushed Iowa 225-to-136. Kain Colter had a solid games, rushing for 72 yards and finishing 11-of-14 in the passing game for 104 yards and a touchdown in windy Kinnick Stadium. Stephen Buckley had 99 yards rushing for 5.8 yards-per-carry. Put simply: NU moved the ball and it got into a little big of a rhythm, particularly after halftime. Does the offense “suck right now,” as Colter indicated? Well, it sucks compared to how it played against Ohio State, Syracuse and Cal, but it did move the ball. That’s encouraging, and a big step up from last week.
The bigger issue this game was turnovers and penalties. Usually, Pat Fitzgerald is overly simplistic in blaming entire losses on those mistakes, but they were the clear difference in this game. The Wildcats had a number of penalties that killed drives and had two fumbles in Iowa territory — the botched pitch on the potential game-winning drive was the worst of them. That can’t happen, especially against a team that may not be great, but has held its own in every game it’s played this year. Without those mistakes, NU probably wins this game. The offense may not have “made the plays that winners make,” as Fitzgerald likes to say, but it did move the ball enough to win the game. That’s progress, considering the last two games.
How much more do we see of Trevor Siemian?
Fitzgerald was asked postgame why NU didn’t use Trevor Siemian much today, and he replied that Colter was outstanding, so the Wildcats kept him in. That may be true, but NU has changed it up at quarterback when Colter has been outstanding before. It makes you wonder, have the coaches lost faith in Siemian? He only came in on one series today and didn’t do much of anything. A lot of that was on the offensive line, but Siemian couldn’t do what Colter did — make something happen on broken plays.
There are a lot of qualifiers here. First, Siemian works best in the open field and making things happen on broken plays isn’t his strength, so it’s unfair to use that series as a reason to stop playing him. There was also a swirling wind in Kinnick Stadium today, so it didn’t make sense to throw the ball a lot. However, no matter the conditions, we’ve never seen that little of Siemian. Is that permanent? It’s probably too early to tell, but Saturday’s game certainly didn’t look good for his playing time chances from here on out.
Props to the defensive tackles
NU’s defensive tackles have really struggled this year, and the run defense figured to have a bad game against Iowa’s strong offensive line and power running game. It sure looked that way on the first drive, as the Hawkeyes powered their way downfield behind 65 rush yards to take a 7-0 lead. However, after that series, Iowa only gained 71 more rush yards the entire game. That would be pretty impressive for any run defense to do against Iowa, and it’s certainly impressive for NU given how the Wildcats’ defensive tackles have played this year. It was their best game of the season by far, and if they’d played that way against Ohio State, this season would probably look a lot different.
Offensive line struggles
After a solid start to the season, the offensive line has gone downhill. Iowa had six sacks and Colter avoided a lot more sacks. Left tackle Jack Konopka had a rough day and guard Ian Park was pulled in favor of Matt Frazier. For the offense to find its mojo again, the offensive line must be better.
There are two time management decisions that had NU fans riled up. First was the inside zone run right before half and the second was not taking timeouts on Iowa’s final drive of regulation.
On the inside zone run: yes, NU needed points, but it was third-and-15 from their own 25-yard line with well over a minute left. Had they not converted (and they likely wouldn’t have), Iowa would have had decent field position with plenty of time. Instead, Iowa had decent field position with barely any time. You might not like the call, but there’s certainly an argument for that decision.
The decision to not call timeout at the end of the game was more perplexing. The Hawkeyes went for it on fourth-and-11, trying to get into field goal range, but they let the clock wind down so the end result (an interception) wasn’t a big deal. Had NU called timeout, it could have potentially gotten the ball back with time to put something together. Given the issues with the wind, it probably wouldn’t have amounted to anything, but it would have given the Wildcats a better chance than they got.
Fitzgerald called it a “catch 22,” and said that Iowa would have had more time to move down the field if NU had called timeouts.
“We wanted to see what happens, we got a third down stop and they were kicking into the wind, so you knew they were going to have to go for it,” Fitzgerald said
That’s the point the “call a timeout” camp was making, too — timeouts couldn’t have really hurt, since the Hawkeyes were really just playing for the conversion and the field goal anyway.
Fitzgerald stood by his decision. “We were playing to win the game,” he said.
- Northwestern’s corners played really well. Nick VanHoose had a big third down stop and Matt Harris, while he needs an offseason in the weight room, looked good in his first start. Of course, Iowa barely threw the ball, but all-in-all, it was a nice game from a group that has come a long ways this season.
- NU drops to 4-4, but Nebraska just lost to Minnesota and nobody in the division looks invincible. NU isn’t going to win the Legends, but it can certainly win two-of-four against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State to make a bowl game.
- Dean Lowry went out early in the game with a “lower body injury” and HawkeyeDrive.com’s Brendan Stiles said he saw Will Hampton get taken for x-rays after the game. Any comment on either player’s status is purely speculation right now, but that’s certainly something to watch.