Over the past six weeks, Northwestern has alternated wins and losses. Saturday's 38-31 defeat at Michigan was far more discouraging than the two that preceded it.Yet if the recent pattern is any indication, Northwestern is in line for a win next week at Michigan State. Before we get into the matchup with the Spartans, check out our final thoughts on the Michigan game, plus a look around the Big Ten.
Final Thoughts on Northwestern
An Improved Rush Defense
by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
Before Northwestern can even think about calling itself a “good” defense, the secondary needs to prove it can put together not just one or two sporadically effective performances, but a string of effective outings against capable passing offenses. It has not done as much thus far this season, and coordinator Mike Hankwitz has given me no reason to expect any major improvements over the final two weeks. The run defense is another matter entirely. After yielding 201 rushing yards to Nebraska, the Wildcats held Iowa and Michigan under 135 yards on the ground, and now rank third among Big Ten teams with a 3.60 average yards per play average (In case you’re wondering, I prefer using yards-per-play statistics because they remove the variance of play frequency. It’s a more accurate portrait of what a defense accomplishes in a given situation). Last season, Northwestern finished 10th in the same category.
To be fair, the Wildcats have yet to face an elite rushing offense. Nebraska’s rushing attack, which ranks first in the Big Ten at 5.93 yards per pop, battered the Wildcats at the line of scrimmage with innovative blocking sets and sheer force of will. Quarterback Taylor Martinez was able to break contain and scramble for first downs. Northwestern still held the Huskers well below their single game average (269.56 yards per game – 201 against NU; 5.93 yards per play – 4.6 against NU), and followed that up with improved outings against the Hawkeyes and Wolverines. Tackles Sean McEvily and Brian Arnfelt generate a strong push at the point of attack, while ends Quentin Williams, Tyler Scott (who leads the Big Ten in sacks with 7.0) and speed-rushing specialist Deonte Gibson apply pressure off the edge and contain stretch plays and wide handoffs. The run defense was not expected to be one of Northwestern’s strong points entering this season, but the line has coalesced into a cohesive unit with excellent gap discipline to go along with a never-say-die relentlessness that has the effect of wearing down opposing linemen throughout the course of games.
A Solid Two-Quarterback System
by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)
I've spent a lot of time this year saying that Kain Colter should be Northwestern's featured quarterback, and while it's okay for Trevor Siemian to come in for certain packages, I didn't think he and Colter should essentially be splitting snaps. For much of the year, NU's coaches seemed to hinder both of their players by switching them in an out so often and by putting them into predictable situations. But credit where credit's due: Siemian played a very good game on Saturday.
To be clear, I still think Colter needs to be the featured quarterback. When given the chance to throw, he opened things up, and he operated the offense to perfection at times in the second half, stifling Michigan's solid defense with the option and zone read. Colter's skill set is the best for this offense. He and Mark form a very dynamic rushing duo and he can make plays when protection collapses like few can. However, Siemian certainly isn't the inept quarterback many in the media (including yours truly) have painted him to be.
Of course, let's not anoint Siemian too quickly. He's had some rough games and hasn't been nearly as consistent as Colter this year. He shouldn't be the starter or take a majority of the snaps — Colter has earned that role. However, there certainly is a place for Siemian in the NU offense; the question now is what that place is. After Siemian's Saturday performance, the NU coaches once again have a decision to make on how they use their two quarterbacks. How will they use both effectively? That's the million dollar question.
Around the Big Ten
Reality Sets in for Indiana
by Chris Johnson
It was fun while it lasted. Indiana’s promising run at the Big Ten championship reached a jarring conclusion Saturday against Wisconsin, who trampled the Hoosiers 62-14 at Memorial Stadium to end their Leaders Division title bid. The Badgers attempted only seven pass attempts with third-string quarterback Curt Phillips. That’s mostly because the running game, led by Montee Ball’s 198-yard, three-touchdown performance, was virtually unstoppable. The Hoosiers were physically outmatched at the line of scrimmage and Wisconsin used that advantage to bludgeon the opposition with 64 run plays at an astonishing 8.8 yards-per-carry clip. If there was ever any doubt as to who would emerge from this year’s sanction-weakened Leaders Division, Wisconsin made sure such doubts were erased by notching a statement win over the upstart Hoosiers. Indiana entered Saturday with a chance to gain the upper hand in the Division race. They left with a devastating loss and a sobering reality check to boot.
Not all is lost for the Hoosiers. With two games remaining, bowl eligibility is still in play, but that will require consecutive road wins at Penn State and Purdue. Indiana is an improved football team. Kevin Wilson’s offensive acumen is slowly seeping its way into the Hoosiers’ offensive philosophy. He has that program headed in the right direction. This much we can agree on. Indiana’s short-lived relevance in the Big Ten championship picture was a nice storyline, but it’s premature. Indiana’s football future is much brighter than it’s been in many years, and that’s a win in itself. Missing out on the League championship game is not a disappointment because Indiana never had any realistic expectations of reaching that goal in the first place. After finishing 1-11 last season, anything from here on out is pure gravy. The fact we’re talking about Indiana football in November is proof enough of the Hoosiers’ rise. Baby steps.
T-Magic Lives up to his Name
by Kevin Trahan
Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez has been the butt of a lot of jokes over the past few years. Heck, even the fake Bo Pelini Twitter account joins in the fun. Martinez has a shot-put throwing motion and makes questionable decisions at times. He's known for piling up stats against bad teams, but struggling mightily against good ones. This year, however, Martinez deserves respect. He ranks No. 1 in the Big Ten in quarterback rating and No. 1 in completion percentage. He's also third among Big Ten quarterbacks with 77 rushing yards per game. More importantly, he's winning.
The Cornhuskers are well in line for a Big Ten Championship Game appearance, needing to win just one more game — Minnesota or Iowa — to clinch a berth. Much of the credit for that goes to Martinez, who has led second half comebacks against Michigan State, Northwestern and Penn State in the last four games, with a win against Michigan coming in that stretch, as well. Considering the drives Martinez led in those comebacks — particularly against Northwestern and Michigan State — it's tough to not call Martinez clutch this year. If Nebraska can take down Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game, the Huskers will be headed to their first BCS Bowl in the BCS era. Much of the credit for that run goes to "T-Magic," as he's known in Lincoln, for finally living up to his nickname.
Around the Big Ten – Recapping Three Games From Last Week
by Chris Johnson
Nebraska 32, Penn State 23 – Had Nebraska not pulled off its fourth second-half double-digit comeback this season, Michigan was in position to seize control in the Legends Division race. Now Nebraska, with games remaining against Minnesota and at Iowa, will likely cruise to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. The Huskers continue to display remarkable fourth-quarter mettle, coming to life in the biggest moments, making plays when it counts, doing just enough to eek out victories. Saturday offered the latest example. Nebraska was nursing a 27-23 fourth-quarter lead when Penn State tight end Matt Lehman approached the end zone. Lehman fumbled before breaking the plane and the Huskers recovered for a touchback. That play handed all momentum back to Nebraska, who added five more points on a safety and field goal to finish off the Nittany Lions. In just their second year of Big Ten play, Nebraska – barring a collapse down the stretch – is heading to the league championship game.
Wisconsin 62, Indiana 14 -- I touched on this game above, but here’s another angle: Wisconsin, after struggling for much of the season, is hitting its stride. Last week’s loss against Michigan State was a setback, sure, but the Spartans have one of the Big Ten's best run defenses (3.60 yards per rush). The Badgers have now won four of their last five games dating back to October 6, and tailback Montee Ball appears to have overcome his slow start and regained the Heisman-level performance he exhibited last season. It’s difficult to draw too many conclusions when you’re going up against Indiana’s pitiful defense, but it requires no level of next-level analysis to realize the Badgers are figuring things out along the offensive line and in the run game. You could not make such claims earlier this season, when the likes of Utah State, Northern Iowa and UTEP reigned in the Badgers’ rushing attack. Wisconsin has two games remaining against Ohio State and Penn State, both of which will serve as mere tune-ups for a likely matchup with Nebraska in the Big Ten Championship game.
Michigan 38, Northwestern 31 – There are no words to describe what happened at the end of the fourth quarter in Northwestern’s loss Saturday. Michigan took over at its own 38-yard line with 18 seconds remaining, down three points, staring at its second Big Ten loss of the season and the first home defeat of Brady Hoke’s tenure. Quarterback Devin Gardner launched a 53-yard pass to receiver Roy Roundtree. Nortwestern cornerback Daniel Jones gained position, outleapt Roundtree to meet the ball in midair, and swatted the pass….right into Roundtree’s arms. Michigan hit the ensuing field goal and carried its momentum to an overtime win. This is probably old news for most of you. I get that. The reason I’m recapping that final play is to emphasize Northwestern’s poor late-game management, which continues to defy conventional logic. The Penn State and Nebraska losses were, for Northwestern fans, mostly predictable. Saturday’s choke job reached new levels of gut-wrenching dejection.
Around the Big Ten – Previewing Three Games Next Week
by Kevin Trahan
Ohio State at Wisconsin — This game gave us a classic last year, as Braxton Miller's late Hail Mary gave Ohio State the lead against a Wisconsin team that would eventually win the Big Ten Championship. This year, the Buckeyes bring an undefeated record into Madison, where they have struggled over the past decade. The Badgers have already clinched a trip to the Big Ten title game, due to Ohio State and Penn State being ineligible. However, a win against Ohio State will give Wisconsin some legitimacy, since the Badgers may be the third best team in the Leaders Division. OSU, meanwhile, isn't playing for its postseason hopes, but this will be the second-to-last hurdle to an undefeated season.
Northwestern at Michigan State — I considered last week's Northwestern-Michigan game to be a battle for the Capital One Bowl. This time around, NU-Michigan State looks like it could be a battle for the Gator Bowl. The Gator Bowl seems much more interested in taking Michigan State than Northwestern, but if NU wins this game, Gator Bowl officials would likely take the Wildcats in order to not anger the Big Ten (the conference wouldn't be happy with a bowl game taking a 6-6 team over a 9-3 team). If MSU loses this game, it must win the final game of the season against Minnesota to become bowl eligible. This is a good matchup for the Wildcats, who can score on anyone, and the MSU offense might have a tough time keeping up. However, the Spartans are at home and have their postseason hopes on the line.
Minnesota at Nebraska — This is Nebraska's first chance to clinch the Legends Division title, and the Cornhuskers get a relatively easy opponent to start with. Minnesota might be the worst 6-4 team in the power six conferences, and that record is more due to an easy non-conference schedule than anything. Still, the Gophers can be dangerous on offense and the Huskers have struggled with home upset losses in recent years, so this game is a chance for Nebraska to prove this year's team is different.