EVANSTON, Ill -- A loss to Ohio State was not unexpected. Dropping a second game in a row at Wisconsin a week later was more predictable. Northwestern had fallen against the two best teams on its schedule, but its hopes of contending for a Big Ten championship were not gone. They had important November games against Nebraska, Michigan and Michigan State remaining. The Wildcats could still win the Legends Division.
They just needed to make a few tweaks here and there.
That optimistic viewpoint no longer exists. Not even amongst the most fervid Wildcats diehards. In an ugly, defensive slog, Northwestern managed just 17 points against Minnesota, who scored 20. It was the Wildcats’ third consecutive loss and, by the looks of it, the end of their conference championship hopes.
On Monday, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald tried to lighten the mood after the Wisconsin loss by having water balloons dropped on his players in a team meeting. The Wildcats followed with a strong week of practice and felt, after a game where players said they came out “flat,” that they had regained the positive energy they carried into the Ohio State game.
“I feel like we regained our energy level and our focus for this game,” senior receiver Christian Jones, who finished with five catches for 53 yards, said afterward. “It comes down to execution.”
Simply not executing – the same term Fitzgerald used to explain the Wisconsin loss – might not account for all the mistakes that took place during Northwestern’s putrid performance here Saturday. The Wildcats, playing without offensive stars Kain Colter and Venric Mark (who were both injured) produced just 94 rushing yards on 3.6 yards per carry and 234 passing yards. The offense, sluggish and ineffective last week at Wisconsin, was nearly as bad against the Gophers. The only difference? Minnesota’s defense is a few notches below Wisconsin’s, so the Wildcats’ struggles weren’t quite as obvious.
The defense did its part, limiting Minnesota’s rushing offense – which ranked fourth in the Big Ten entering Saturday – to 176 yards. Linebacker Collin Ellis played arguably his best game as a Wildcat to date; he finished with nine tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Cornerback Nick VanHoose led the team with 11 tackles, but was removed from the game in the second half after sustaining a big hit from Minnesota quarterback Phillip Nelson (VanHoose returned after suffering what Fitzgerald termed an “upper-body deal”).
The moment Northwestern’s sluggish performance turned into something more alarming came late in the third-quarter, when quarterback Trevor Siemian threw a pick-six on a slant pass intended for Jones that evoked memories of the momentum-turning third-quarter interception he threw against the Buckeyes.
“Obviously the choice to make that throw, I think he’d love to have back,” Fitzgerald said. “Trevor’s a guy that’s made a ton of plays for us and I fully expect that he’ll make them in the future.”
A Chris Hawthorne field goal early in the fourth quarter, three plays after Siemian fumbled while being sacked, put Minnesota up 10 points, which was right about when Northwestern fans started panicking, as their favorite team’s dream season appeared to be taking another negative turn. Their fears – despite Northwestern scoring 13 fourth-quarter points – were confirmed at the final whistle.
The Wildcats’ game at Iowa next week once looked like an easy victory. After Saturday’s loss, the chances Northwestern can beat the Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium appear slim. This was a game Northwestern should have – had to, even – won. Minnesota was the easiest game left on its schedule. From here, the Wildcats face one tough contest after the next – from road games at Iowa and Nebraska to home contests against Michigan and Michigan State. Even the season-ending road game at Illinois, one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, could be tricky.
How many of those games can Northwestern win? If it plays like it did Saturday, maybe two, three at best? Throwing water balloons won’t fix the problems Northwestern has on its hands. Getting Colter and Mark back will help. So will winning the turnover battle; Northwestern was -3 in that department Saturday. The Wildcats can make adjustments on offense, too, but will it be enough to salvage their once-promising season?
A lack of execution may be one problem, but it doesn’t explain why Northwestern has, in the span of three weeks, regressed from a potential Big Ten championship contender to one of (if not the) the worst teams in its own division.
Proving that it’s more than that – that the bullish early season, division-champion-contending projections weren’t as ludicrous as they seem now – won’t be easy.