We take a step back to look at the biggest stories/issues facing Northwestern after Saturday's 35-6 loss at Wisconsin.
The biggest thing for NU to worry about right now — more than scheming, more than the defensive issues, more than anything — is the injuries, since a lot of the other problems could fix themselves if the injured players come back. Before the season, we tabbed Sean McEvilly, Kain Colter and Venric Mark as the three players NU couldn’t afford to lose. All three of those players have missed significant time this season. Colter and Mark seem likely to be back soon — their injuries from today didn’t appear to be overly serious, though who really knows for sure — but Mark hasn’t been 100 percent healthy all season. The uncertainty surrounding McEvilly’s injury isn’t doing any favors to NU’s run defense and defensive tackle depth. If all three of those guys can get better, this could be a brand new team, but it’s tough to tell when that will happen.
What’s wrong with NU’s offense?
For the “Why does Kain play quarterback crowd,” today is why. Northwestern only effectively moved the ball when he was in the game, and while it’s popular opinion that he’s a terrible passer, that’s simply not true. He can’t make downfield passes consistently, but he’s accurate with mid-length passes, can escape pressure and adds another dimension to the running game. He and Venric Mark were dinged up today — Colter did come in again after his initial injury — but there’s no reason he shouldn’t be playing when he’s completely healthy.
As far as the players out there today, it’s tough to say what the issue was. Trevor Siemian and the receivers were off against a pretty average secondary and the offensive line had perhaps its worst game of the season. However, the most alarming part of all of this is that NU doesn’t appear to have the playmakers to consistently move the ball downfield without Colter and Mark. Although the coaches insist this isn’t true, the playcalling changes drastically when Siemian is in the game, and NU has gone further and further away from the gameplan it uses with Colter and Mark. That’s not a bad thing — you want to play to the strengths of the personnel you have in the game — but NU seems best suited to rotate the quarterbacks like it did last season (and in the first half of the Ohio State game).
The Missed Tackles
Northwestern’s interior run defense came to play at the beginning of the game. They made sound tackles and filled their gaps, for the most part. However, the gap control got worse throughout the game and the tackling got much, much worse. Missed tackles were an issue at the beginning of the season and they reappeared last week. However, most people wrote that off to Carlos Hyde being a big back and hard to tackle. But now, it’s a major concern, and considering how many teams NU faces with good runners (Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, and even, to an extent, Minnesota), it needs to be addressed.
Blame Dwight White all you want, but he hasn’t been bad in the past few games. In fact, the young corners have all been fine. In the past two games, the Wildcats’ linebackers have been exploited, especially on delayed throws to the flat. It’s not an issue of not being able to stay with receivers; it’s about discipline and playing the right coverage. That’s been concerning the past two games, as has play-action.
NU has struggled against play-action all season — it was most notable against Maine and Ohio State — and Pat Fitzgerald dismissed questions about that in practice. However, the Badgers burned NU on play-action a number of times — the safeties and the linebackers were both beaten badly by biting on the run — and the middle of the defense and the flat are serious places of concern right now.
So now what?
The sky isn’t falling. It’s one game. NU will fall out of the top 25 for sure, but these last two games were the toughest on NU’s schedule. Given the schedules of other division foes, the Wildcats very well may need to win out to make it to Indianapolis. That’s a tough task, for sure, but not impossible. As of this writing, Michigan was losing to Penn State and has yet to prove it’s a great team. Nebraska still has a young defense and inconsistent offense (though it’s improving). Michigan State has a great defense and a bad (but maybe improving) defense. Is NU the best team in that group? Even if it is, can it win? It’s tough to say either way, but after 6 games, the Wildcats just might not be as good as everyone thought. The offense can be good, and the defense has better playmakers than it has had in the past, but there are still some gaping holes that haven’t been addressed.