Northwestern got back on the right track this week with a 28-17 win over Iowa, improving to 7-2 on the season. Now, the Wildcats have a bye week before finishing off the season at Michigan, at Michigan State and at home against Illinois. Check out our final thoughts on NU’s win this Saturday, a look at the home stretch and a look around the Big Ten.
Final Thoughts on NU's Win
Secondary Steps Up
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Back before training camp began, following a Meineke Care Bowl defeat in which Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill fired 27 complete passes for 329 yards and a touchdown, one dysfunctional pass defense effort in a season full of them, Northwestern entered this season rightfully concerned about their ability to contain opposing quarterbacks through the air. Those concerns are not unfounded – the Wildcats, following a 28-17 win over Iowa Saturday, now rank 11th among Big Ten teams in pass yards allowed per game (272.4), tied for eighth in pass touchdowns allowed (12), seventh in average yards per attempt (6.6) and 10th in pass defense efficiency (125.1 rating). That is the portrait of a porous pass defense, a statistical snapshot made worse by the Big Ten’s dearth of experienced passers.
Finding reason for positivity amidst that numerical evidence is doubtless difficult. So it may surprise you -- especially in light of last week’s lament against this very same unit -- that I stand mildly impressed by NU’s pass defense at this stage of the season. Given the losses this offseason, most notably safety Brian Peters and cornerback Jeravin Mathews, the secondary – which returned one combined year of starting experience – has outplayed last year’s group. That is not a huge compliment. Last season, the Wildcats fielded the Big Ten’s worst pass defense. Yet it is still improvement, no matter the lowly depths it’s measured against. The latest example came Saturday, when Daniel Jones and Demetrius Dugar filled in for Nick VanHoose and Quinn Evans to help limit Iowa’s James Vandenberg to 214 yards passing and zero touchdowns. The secondary has and will continue to suffer through growing pains, and that’s completely natural. Few position groups as youthful as this one are able to excel at the highest level right away. The secondary is still finding itself, and the path for growth is clear ahead. That’s what matters – not the ugly counting stats.
Colter Makes Two Statements on Saturday
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
Chris Johnson already touched on this, but I’ll give my two cents. Kain Colter made two loud statements in Saturday’s win over Iowa. The first one was on the field — to the tune of 166 rushing yards and four touchdowns (one through the air). The second came in the postgame press conference, when Colter was addressing his comments on NU’s lack of an offensive identity (re: the constant quarterback switching).
“When we’re blocking at the line of scrimmage and we’re blocking on the perimeter, we’ve got Venric back there and me back there, we’re tough to stop, and you know, I feel like that’s kind of the direction we need to go,” he said.
Colter had clearly been frustrated the past few weeks, as NU’s coaches refused to hand him the reigns to the offense — it was especially obvious in the “lack of an identity” article — and consequently, NU struggled with offensive consistency. Saturday, Colter was given the reigns, and he ran with them. Literally.
Colter only threw nine times (completing six) for 80 yards, a touchdown and an interception, but it was clear to everyone that he dominated the game. Throw out your pre-conceived notions of what a quarterback should be; a quarterback should be the person who best commands the offense, and without a doubt, that’s Colter.
Colter can throw — as he told us a few weeks back, he’s proven that — but when the running game is working, allow him to run without criticizing how little he throws. He’s as “dual-threat” as they come, and on Saturday, he proved that he deserves to be the featured quarterback from here one out.
Around the Big Ten
Indiana Alive In Leaders Division
by Chris Johnson
In two weeks, we could be talking about Indiana seizing the inside track at representing the Leaders Division in the Big Ten championship game. It sounds crazy, but it’s true! That same team you watched NU dominate in every phase of the game earlier this season (save for a brief second-half scare), the one who on Saturday picked up its first Big Ten win since November 2011, the one who lost its starting quarterback and was forced to fundamentally alter its offensive focus. That Indiana.
Before we can start talking about the Hoosiers playing their way into the Rose Bowl, here’s what needs to happen: Indiana beats Iowa next week. Wisconsin, who holds a two-game lead in the division, is off. Seven days later (Nov. 10), the Badgers travel to Bloomington, where an Indiana win gives the Hoosiers the top spot in the division via tiebreaker. Beating Iowa, even in their current state, is no guarantee. But Kevin Wilson’s team proved Saturday it can win on the road, and Kinnick Stadium – as we learned two weeks ago when Penn State defiled the hallowed stadium and the lowly team trying to defend its name in a 38-14 drubbing – is not the hardest place to win at. Not this year, at least. As it stands, I can’t see Wisconsin forfeiting stumbling on their cakewalk to Indianapolis. This season set up perfectly for the Badgers. With the division’s first and second place teams (Ohio State and Penn State) ineligible, Wisconsin was granted a cakewalk to Indianapolis. Indiana may or may not get in the way, but their relevance in the division race at this stage of the season is a victory in itself. Full disclosure: I really, really hope Indiana makes it happen.
An Emerging Star in Minneapolis?
by Kevin Trahan
Okay, maybe it’s too early to call Philip Nelson an emerging star, but the Minnesota quarterback had quite the game in the Gophers’ dominant win over Purdue, throwing for 246 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-22 passing. Did we mention that he’s just a freshman? That follows up a college debut in Madison that, all things considered, wasn’t terrible.
Granted, Nelson will need to prove himself against a defense better than Purdue’s before we can give him too much praise, but things certainly look bright for the future for the Gophers. In fact, things look bright for this year, as well.
Minnesota is 5-3, and although it’s just 1-3 in the Big Ten, the Gophers certainly look like a bowl team this year, with a likely win against Illinois remaining on the schedule. Jerry Kill’s team won’t be favored to get past six wins — they still have to play Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan State — but this is certainly a nice step for the Minnesota football program. That’s especially true if Nelson can progress for the next four years.
Around the Big Ten – Recapping the Week’s Biggest Games
Nebraska 23, Michigan 9 – This was a game Nebraska absolutely needed. The manner of victory hailed from a bygone era, one of defensive discipline and ferocity. Yes, the blackshirts are back. That much is certain after the Huskers held Denard Robinson, who left the game in the second quarter with an injury, to 6-of-11 passing for just 55 yards. Backup Russell Bellomny didn’t fare much better: 3-of-16 passing, 38 yards, three interceptions. All in all, it was a convincing performance for a unit in dire need of encouragement after a season of disappointment. This is the defense we’re used to seeing Nebraska play. If the Huskers keep this up, watch out.
Ohio State 35, Penn State 23 – In a matchup billed as a meeting of the Big Ten’s best teams, there were no surprises. Ohio State got another Heisman moment from quarterback Braxton Miller, who accounted for three of his team’s four touchdowns in a game that wasn’t as close as the scoreboard may indicate. In the process, all Miller did was move another step toward receiving an invitation to New York for the hallowed ceremony. Ohio State, meanwhile, proved what any observer of Big Ten football already knew: the Buckeyes are the best team in the Big Ten. It’s not up for debate. And just think what Ohio State can do once Urban Meyer fills replenishes the recruiting ranks with his own prospects.
Michigan State 16, Wisconsin 13 – Whenever these two teams do battle, you best watch. There’s never a dull moment in this budding rivalry, and Saturday provided another thrilling chapter. Michigan State overcame its season-long offensive doldrums to edge the Badgers in overtime, handing Wisconsin its first home loss since 2009. The Spartans limped into Camp Randall having lost consecutive games to Iowa and Michigan. They needed to stop the bleeding and stop the potential four-game skid that lie in a home clash with Nebraska next week. At this point, Michigan State’s Rose Bowl hopes are a huge long shot. Beating Wisconsin doesn’t change that. It doesn give Spartans fans something to cheer about in a season marked by missed expectations and disappointment.
Around the Big Ten — Three Games to Watch Next Week
Nebraska at Michigan State — Northwestern doesn’t control its own destiny on the way to the Big Ten Championship Game, but as Pat Fitzgerald said on Saturday, NU is “riding shotgun.” To get into the driver’s seat, NU will need to win out and get some help from Nebraska’s opponents, starting this week with Michigan State. The Spartans picked up a big, confidence-boosting win in Madison on Saturday, and with this upcoming matchup at home, they are certainly capable of taking down the Huskers. Since NU won’t be playing this weekend, Wildcats fans looking for something to watch should definitely be tuned in to this one in East Lansing.
Michigan at Minnesota — Even with Denard Robinson, Michigan wasn’t exactly tearing it up against Nebraska, but without their star quarterback, the Wolverines were lost offensively against the Huskers. This week, Robinson will be back as Michigan heads to a Minnesota team that is building momentum after a big game from freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. The Wolverines should win, but the Gophers are a dangerous team at the moment, and if they hang around, Michigan could be in trouble.
Iowa at Indiana — Iowa is in complete disarray after back-to-back losses, including a blowout at home against Penn State and last week’s “not as close as it seemed” loss to Northwestern. At 4-4, the Hawkeyes must win two of their last four to make a bowl game, and that’s no guarantee, with matchups against Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska after this game in Bloomington. This is as close to a must-win as it gets for Iowa. Indiana, meanwhile, beat Illinois last week and has been steadily improving this season, especially on offense. Given that the Hoosiers can score on pretty much anyone and the Hawkeyes can’t score on anyone, Indiana has a solid chance at a two-game winning streak.