Northwestern lost 70-23 to Wisconsin. That, friends, is not good. I know you don't want to read about it, but here goes. I won't try to act like it was, nor will anybody related to the NU program, because it is embarrassing when you give up 70 points. I'm not stupid.
However, here's the way I see it: NU played the fourth0 or fifth-best team in the country, depending on who you ask and the Big Ten champions, on the road. As a result of turnovers - some of which were caused by NU ineptitude, some of which were caused by outstanding Wisconsin play, some of which were plain lucky - Wisconsin got seven turnovers, often resulting in them getting phenomenal field position. NU was hard-pressed to stop the Badgers when they had to drive the length of the field, they were harder-pressed to stop them when they got the ball in the shadow of their own end zone.
NU gave up 70 points. 70. But to me, this game doesn't sting as badly as losing to Purdue or throwing away the Wrigley game with failed tackling. It's a sign that your team is not as good as the fourth-best team in the country - not even close - and that you have a lot to work on.
But NU has a bowl game to win. Now, its genuinely a pity that great teams - the three Big Ten championship teams, the final year of the Bacher era, and Kafka's crew - got to bowl games, and in some cases, came very very close - excruciatingly close - but in all cases, perpetuated NU's now seven-decade old losing streak in bowl games. But that doesn't negate the chance that about a month from now, NU will be playing with one, and that Evan Watkins and the ragtag defensive crew that just gave up ten touchdowns in a single football game have a chance to snap that septagenarian hex.
So let's look at the good, the bad, and the bad, and acknowledge that a horrific loss isn't the end of days.
- Don't hate on Bret Bielema. He didn't run up the score - in fact, he kneeled the ball down in the red zone - he just had a team that was way, way better than NU's.
- Evan Watkins might have thrown three picks, fumbled the ball twice, and only completed 13 of 22 passes, but, well, I still like the kid. First off, he has a cannon. An absolute cannon. Secondly, of those three picks, one was distinctly not his fault, as it popped out of the generally reliable hands of Jeremy Ebert and into the more than willing hands of Jay Valai, who unfortunately plays for Wisconsin. And although one of those fumbles was because he is slower than JJ Watt and can't protect the ball, the other was just a great play by Watt. But here's the positives: he can hit guys - occasionally, when he doesn't overthrow them by a billion miles. He's not fast, nor is he graceful, by a longshot, but he's elusive as a runner. (Although he's slower than JJ Watt.) And his decision-making abilities aren't as suspect as I'd hoped - he knows when he needs to bullet the ball someplace nobody can catch it. He still looks unsteady in the pocket, but he's got a month as QB No. 1 to work on that.
- Venric Mark giveth and he taketh away. He'll be a great kick returner for a long time, but his fumble in punt coverage - he tried to get a fair catch, then just let the ball bounce into him - is inexcusable. The kid is speedy as hell - him and Stephen Simmons gave NU good field position all day long. Never mind the fact that Simmons also had a return TD in a blowout game as a freshman and never did it again for his entire career, never mind that at all.
- Kain Colter is speedy, but the WildKain needs to stop. It messes up Watkins' rhythm and has little to no benefit. Colter's pick, by the way, was also luck - just happened to hang up high enough after his arm got hit that somebody got under it. Bring him in once in a while to QB a series, as Fitz has done with Kafka and Persa when they were backups, but bringing him in mid-series just slows things down and signifies that, hey, defense, the run is coming because this guy still has never completed a pass.
- Horrific statement time: NU's running game looked better than it had all year, even with Trumpy. Stephen Simmons played the best game of his career, getting 55 yards on 12 carries, and even the Arby Fields plays weren't bad. Adonis Smith has breakout speed too. With Trumpy, the run attack could legitimately be something in the bowl game to complement Watkins - or take it away from him if he's as overzealous as he was today throwing.
- Confirmation: can Dan Persa still get the all-time Big Ten record for best all-time completion record if Scott Tolzien has a bad bowl game which is likely considering they'll play a BCS-caliber defense, possibly TCU? I'd like that.
- There is no helping Northwestern's run defense. It is doomed.
- There is likely no helping Northwestern's pass defense, not because Mabin/Vaughn and crew are awful - they're not great, but they're alright - but because a team with as little run defense as NU has needs to stay completely keyed in on the rushing attack. It's not even a scheme thing. It's just every player on the defense knowing that every time the opponent runs is eight yards, 10 yards, 12 yards, and knowing that in the back of their head, and knowing, sort of, kind of, that they have to expect the run to stop it - then comes a quick, impossible to defend Scott Tolzien pass. David Arnold had great coverage on one throw that resulted in a touchdown but a lot of it was on quick, merciless strikes for a defense expecting run. For all the hype about how great a day Montee Ball and James White had, Tolzien completed 15-of-19 passes for 230 yards - 12 an attempt - and four scores.
That's all I got. I was going to write 70 posts about this, but figured the symbolism was excessive. Sort of like scoring 70 points in a football game.