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Three Things We Learned From Northwestern's 39-28 Loss to Penn State

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

Inexperience Could Limit Northwestern’s Success

Youth was one of the primary concerns about NU’s roster heading into the season. Five games into the season, that youth played beyond its years. The overall inexperience on both sides of the ball was masked by a collective poise that shone through in games against Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Boston College and Indiana. Each game provided a different test – Syracuse challenged NU’s fourth quarter mettle, Vanderbilt leveraged physical advantages in the trenches, Boston College benefited from the Wildcats’ poor redzone execution and Indiana mounted a valiant second-half comeback effort – and forced NU to respond in a different way. The Wildcats' in-game execution and schematic adjustments were, up until Saturday, effective. There was a growing sense that this team had the tools – physical, mental, tactical – to overcome a green personnel grouping, that immaturity would not hinder NU's development, even against more experienced squads.

The roster’s youth was evident against Penn State, particularly in the second half. After Venric Mark’s punt return for a touchdown gave NU an 11-point lead just before the start of the fourth quarter, the Wildcats looked in control, with all kinds of positive momentum building as the Lions stood on the brink of losing their Big Ten home opener. An experienced team (and a more progressive game plan) could have applied the knockout blow, the final touch needed to put this game out of reach. I won’t recount the game’s events – you saw what happened. The Wildcats got conservative, content to sit back and hang on to their lead rather than proactively seize their first victory at Beaver Stadium since 1995. This was a game well-within reach, but once the offense stagnated, and the momentum turned, NU couldn’t regain control. Despite the early season evidence to the contrary, the Wildcats have yet to master the art of finishing games. That much is clear.

Kain Colter Needs A Bigger Role On Offense

For the first time in 2012, the positives of NU’s two-quarterback system were outweighed by the negatives. Pat Fitzgerald and staff deployed Colter through an ill-managed positional distribution of run-only quarterback and utility receiver. He finished with just five carries for 24 yards and three catches for 17 yards. There are putative benefits to using Colter as a receiver. He is an explosive playmaker and one of the Wildcats’ best athletes. Getting him the ball in space as much as possible is an entirely sensible plan of action. But his greatest value to this team is at quarterback, not wide receiver. With Colter under center, NU’s offense is more dynamic, more unpredictable. Fitzgerald’s passing-game management may have you think otherwise, but Colter is a capable thrower. Maybe not quite as polished as Trevor Siemian, but effective, if improving. Colter’s also mastered the functionality of the option. You saw it on numerous occasions Saturday, most notably on Mark’s second-quarter touchdown run. Colter is, simply put, a nightmare for defensive coordinators. He combines an electrifying blend of athleticism with respectable passing skills, an imposing skill set that elevates the offense’s overall effectiveness.

That’s not to say Siemian doesn’t have a place in this offense. He certainly does. The Wildcats boast arguably the best receiving corps in the Big Ten, a depth chart eight-deep with talented pass-catchers. That talent is maximized with Siemian running the show, to be sure. But Siemian is most effective in spurts, not as the starting quarterback. The overwhelming praise Colter received following last week’s masterful triple-threat performance underwrote Fitzgerald’s questionable qb management. Colter was used almost exclusively as a running quarterback, and while NU beat Indiana handily, his usage alarmed me on several grounds. It showed Fitzgerald was comfortable entrusting Siemian with the entirety of the passing game, with using Colter as a receiver. He advanced that notion with Saturday’s ill-fated quarterback split. Siemian is an effective thrower – admittedly more effective than Colter – but he’s not the best quarterback for this team. Not with the complex skill-set Colter offers, not with the infusion of dynamism his presence under center dictates, not with his incredible speed and quickness and athleticism. Just because Colter can play receiver, doesn’t mean he needs to. NU is better off using him at quarterback. Flawed logic – that Siemian is a better fit at quarterback, that Colter is best-served playing receiver – precipitated a fundamental fracture of that premise, and it cost the Wildcats their first defeat of the season.

The Defense Regressed To Last Season’s Substandard Form

All it took was one PSU possession to realize the defense was ill-prepared for Bill O’Brien’s pro-style attack. Before Saturday’s game, my friends and I discussed the Wildcats’ defensive weaknesses. We pointed out their vulnerability to well-designed screen passes. Opposing teams had exploited NU on little bubble screens and lateral passes throughout much of this season; PSU, as expected with an offensive playcaller as savvy as O’Brien, used that obvious deficiency as a template to attack the Wildcats. Like so many other times this season, it worked. Quarterback Matt McGloin zinged horizontal passes to open receivers (particularly Allen Robinson, who finished with nine catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns), who promptly sprung ahead for decent gains thanks to disciplined blocking at the line of scrimmage. The Wildcats never adjusted, and McGloin – much like last season, when he hung two touchdowns and nearly 200 yards on NU at Ryan Field in a 34-24 victory – exposed the Wildcats’ shaky secondary, which for the second straight week revealed why there were so many questions before the season about this pass defense.

To pin this loss on the secondary is to undersell what was a generally disappointing defensive effort. The defensive line couldn’t apply consistent pressure on McGloin. The linebackers were slow to react to the Lions’ short passing game. Chaos ran deep through each tier as the Lions staged their second-half comeback. It appeared as if last week’s poor second-half outing against Indiana lingered, what with so much disarray and confusion within the defense. After a horrific season-opening performance at Syracuse, the defense turned a corner and submitted impressive efforts against Vanderbilt, Boston College, South Dakota and one half against Indiana. Over its last 90 minutes of football, the unit has undoubtedly taken a step back. There are specific schematic bugaboos that need correcting – the linebackers were blitzed far too often, the secondary’s inefficient coverage, the lack of gap discipline along the defensive line – but the biggest problem runs deeper than playcalling mishaps and missed assignments. It’s nothing you can see on a box score, or on Saturday’s game tape alone. Addressing the defense’s regression requires a comprehensive look-in at NU’s body of work. When you compare Saturday’s effort to the Vanderbilt and Boston College games, there’s a massive drop-off in intensity and aggressiveness. In those games, the defense attacked with a ferocity unseen in last year’s unit – it played with confidence. Against PSU, as the game unraveled in the second half, the defense reverted to the negative public perception last season's defense commanded. The defense proved, like so many times last year, that no lead is a safe one.