Northwestern did a lot of things well in this game. The offense put up a season high in total yards. Jeremy Ebert looked like an All-Big Ten receiver. Adonis Smith ran the ball well and appears to have established himself as the feature back. The future looks bright at quarterback, as Kain Colter was a true triple threat, doing damage passing, rushing and receiving, and Trevor Siemian looked great during a cameo appearance in garbage time.
Unfortunately, Northwestern still lost the game, because the defense is horrendous and because Dan Persa was slightly less than his typical brilliant self.
The box score for this game illustrates why yards per play is a far better metric than total yards. Northwestern out-gained Iowa 495 to 379, making it appear as though the NU offense was the more effective unit. Unfortunately, that stat doesn't include that Northwestern ran an astounding 92 plays on offense, compared to only 50 for Iowa. The Hawkeyes gained 7.58 yards per play, while the Wildcats averaged just 5.38 yards per play, statistics that paint a more accurate picture of how the game unfolded.
At the end of last season, many observers blamed the complete implosion of the Northwestern defense on Dan Persa's injury, hypothesizing that the offense's inability to sustain long drives without Persa wore the defense out. Statistics indicated that the theory had validity, and it gained momentum when Army dominated the time of possession with Persa out in their upset victory a few weeks ago. But after yet another fourth quarter implosion by the defense with Persa back in the lineup, the new reason for the defense's struggles has become clear: they just aren't very good.
After three quarters, the stars were aligned for a Northwestern upset. The offense had completely dominated the time of possession, holding the ball for more than two-thirds of the game. The defense was as well rested as you could possibly hope for. Yet the Iowa offense owned the fourth quarter, going touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown before taking a knee to end the game on the their final possession. Marcus Coker rushed for 124 yards on 22 carries and had gaping holes to run through, and once again the NU secondary got abused for long touchdowns on play action. The pass rush didn't do the secondary any favors either, failing to record a sack on James Vandenberg.
Of all the defensive issues though, the secondary remains the most glaring. Northwestern has faced five teams this season that try to pass the ball, and all five have moved the ball through the air with ease. And while part of the problem has been Northwestern getting out-talented by guys like Momah from Boston College and Hemingway from Michigan, every week has featured disastrous breakdowns in coverage. And thanks to this alarming post game quote from Pat Fitzgerald, it's clear why the breakdowns keep happening. Via Teddy Greenstein:
Fitz and D Dugar acknowledged what's clear -- at times NU DBs don't know if they are in man or zone coverage.
Fitz: "You’ve got guys coming off the field saying: ‘I’m playing this concept, (he’s) playing that concept.' When those breakdowns in communication have happened this year, they have been disastrous. It starts with us as coaches. Why are they confused?"
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? We are halfway through the regular season and the defensive backs don't know what defense they are supposed to be playing? That is perhaps the most stunning admission of coaching incompetence I have ever heard. In the first game of the season with new starters in the secondary, such confusion would be disappointing, but somewhat understandable. But in Week 7, it's unconscionable. Northwestern could have Darrelle Revis at corner and Ed Reed at safety, but if Revis thinks they're playing zone and has deep help but Reed thinks they're playing man to man and goes to cover the tight end, the offense will still have an easy touchdown completion. Embarrassing. I'm not one to call for people to lose their jobs, but if this problem isn't corrected immediately, then some people on the coaching staff need to lose their jobs.
Yet despite the defense's horrifically bad play, Northwestern still could have won this game. The offense moved the ball well, but squandered several long drives, most notably when Dan Persa threw an awful interception on first and goal that was returned for a 98 yard touchdown. NU was also hurt by a couple of odd decisions on 4th down. In the second quarter, Fitzgerald chose to punt on 4th and long from the Iowa 34 rather than attempt a 51 yard field goal with Jeff Budzien. It's unclear if Budzien is capable of making 51 yard field goals, so the decision to punt when considered on its own might not have been that bad. However, in the fourth quarter on 4th and1 from the Iowa 30, Fitzgerald decided to bring out Budzien for a 47 yarder rather than go for the first down. If Budzien is so unlikely to make a 51 yarder that punting to gain 14 yards of field position is a better option, then he sure as hell isn't very likely to make a 47 yarder. The two decisions are completely incongruous. And regardless of how good Budzien is at kicking (after all, he split the uprights from 47 yards), Northwestern's offense was a dominant 16 of 22 on third down in the game, so their chances of picking up the 4th and 1 are certainly better than Budzien making the field goal.
So now Northwestern sits at 2-4 and their bowl hopes are circling the drain. If they can't pull off an upset over Penn State next week, then we can forget about a bowl game and move on to basketball season. Joy.