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Weekend Rewind: Week 6, Northwestern vs. Ohio State

Every week, InsideNU writers Chris Johnson and Kevin Trahan will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we’ll try and stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with one big takeaway from the Big Ten. Following Northwestern’s 40-30 loss to Ohio State, here’s the sixth edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final thoughts on NU

Rashad Lawrence breaks out

Minutes after Northwestern beat Cal, 44-30, on the road to open the season, coach Pat Fitzgerald commented on the statistical weirdness of Rashad Lawrence, one of the Wildcats’ veteran receivers, catching zero passes. He recorded just three receptions over the next three games, including none against Western Michigan and Maine.

Along the way, Lawrence stayed positive, focused on what he could control – blocking, being a vocal leader, etc. – and not what he couldn’t (at least not completely): the number of times he was targeted.

The Wildcats don’t have the most prolific passing attack in the Big Ten, but they do have a deep corps of pass-catchers – a group that, from Tony Jones to Christian Jones to Cameron Dickerson to Mike Jensen to Dan Vitale to, even, Kain Colter, can attack a defense in a number of ways.

That’s a great attribute for an offense to have; who wouldn’t want a very deep receiving corps? But it also allows the possibility for situations to arise where a player, including established veterans like Lawrence, is unable leave an imprint on the stat sheet. That was the case for the Orlando, FL native before Saturday, when he caught 8 passes for 149 yards against Ohio State – including a seemingly game-turning 67-yard reception in the fourth quarter that gave the Wildcats a first-and-goal from the seven yard line and led to a Cameron Dickerson touchdown catch four plays later.

It was easily Lawrence’s most productive game of the season, even with the costly mistake he contributed to early in the fourth quarter. With Northwestern backed up at its own 29-yard line, quarterback Trevor Siemian fired a pass towards Lawrence, who was being tightly covered by Ohio State cornerback Doran Grant. Lawrence admitted after the game he didn’t create enough separation to give Siemian a clean throwing window. “I’ve just gotta do a better job of getting off the jam and giving Trevor more room to deliver that ball,” he said. To be fair, given how closely Grant was covering Lawrence, Siemian probably should have never thrown that pass in the first pace.

Whoever was at fault (Lawrence and Siemian each deserve part of the blame, in my view), the interception was a costly mistake. The good news is, Lawrence made up for it later in the quarter with a long reception, and can finally move forward with the confidence that, when the game plan allows, he can be one of Northwestern’s top receiving targets.

- Chris Johnson

Not a bad showing from the young corners

You really have to feel for Dwight White. The kid just started his second year of college — and his first as a player — and his entire fan base seems to be rooting against him. You don't get a lot of love being a college cornerback — unless you're Nick VanHoose, who fans adored last season —  but White seems to get more criticism than he deserves. It's almost as if people are cheering against him so they can see true freshman Matt Harris in the game.

White has been beaten on a few deep balls this season, which is obviously unacceptable. However, he's a young player, and all young players have a learning curve. Remember Daniel Jones last season? He got the Dwight White treatment from fans, and now his injury is viewed as a major blow to the team. Corner is arguably one of the toughest positions to pick up, especially when you're a young player and thrown into the action unexpectedly.

However, despite all the criticism, White had a solid game against Ohio State. He didn't give up any deep balls and pretty much locked down his side of the field — the Buckeyes picked apart VanHoose's side, especially on quick passes to the sideline.

While White is still the starter, he's battling Harris for his spot, and Harris was impressive against the Buckeyes, as well. He's really skinny — he needs a year in the weight room to be more effective — so he gave up position to a couple of OSU receivers, but he's the fastest corner on the team and was able to stay stride-for-stride with his man. He didn't give up any big plays either.

Young corners may have it rough, but both performed admirably against Ohio State. Both White and Harris will undoubtedly make some more mistakes, because that's just how the learning curve works, but Saturday's performance was certainly promising for the future.

- Kevin Trahan

Nebraska shows defensive grit 

Watching Nebraska play some of the worst defense in the Big Ten over the first four games of the season would have been shocking in previous decades. Nebraska has prided itself through the years on playing elite defense; Huskers units called themselves the blackshirts, and it was sort of assumed, without really needing to look too deeply into depth charts and personnel, that their defense would be good no matter what in any given year.

But ever since joining the Big Ten in 2011, Nebraska has struggled on that side of the ball, and purported defensive specialist Bo Pelini has received much of the backlash. The Huskers entered this season with a clear identity: an offensive juggernaut that couldn’t stop anyone. And through the first four games of the season – a stretch that included a 41-21 home loss to UCLA, and a 59-20 win over South Dakota State in which the Huskers yielded over 6.0 yards per carry – Nebraska’s defense offered no reason to suspect 2013 would be any different, that Pelini had finally begun to turn things around.

Which is why Saturday’s performance, in which Nebraska held a resurgent Illinois offense to just 19 points and 372 total yards, was so encouraging for Pelini’s maligned defense. Illinois can’t be considered an “elite” offensive team quite yet, but it is better than much of what the Huskers have failed to contain effectively this season, save UCLA. Nebraska had issues limiting opponents like Wyoming and South Dakota State; slowing down Illinois is, without question, a step in the right direction.

After putting forth their strongest defensive effort of the season to date, Nebraska can shore things up on that side of the ball over the next couple of weeks against Big Ten bottom dwellers Purdue and Minnesota before facing crucial games against Legends contenders Northwestern and Michigan in consecutive weeks. Nebraska’s defensive problems aren’t completely solved, but Saturday offered evidence the Huskers may be on their way towards reclaiming the “blackshirts” reputation they’ve largely failed to live up to over the past two seasons.

- Chris Johnson

Can Indiana find consistency?

Indiana's 44-24 win over Penn State this week might be the Hoosiers' most impressive win since the mid-2000s. It was business as usual for the IU offense, which leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game, but the most impressive part was the Hoosiers' defense. Penn State's offense is the strength of the team this year, and the Hoosiers did an incredible job, all things considered, to hold the Nittany Lions to 24 points.

Heading into the past two seasons, Kevin Wilson has not been shy about the struggles of the Indiana defense. He said he understands that the defense needs to be better and that the Hoosiers can't be a major factor in the Big Ten without a respectable defense. However, this quote from Big Ten Media Days shows why there might be reason for optimism:

"Might be some growing pains, but we'll be growing with guys that are faster and more talented. That's exciting to me."

There have certainly been some growing pains so far. The Hoosiers were throttled for 41 and 45 points to Navy and Missouri, respectively. The Missouri game was just two weeks ago, so we have to be careful to take the Penn State performance with a grain of salt. However, if IU's can perform like that in at least half of the games this year, the Hoosiers have a chance to go bowling. As long as the defense is adequate, the offense can win the game.

We've seen this movie before — under Kevin Wilson the Hoosiers have been quite the tease early in the season. However, this time IU has enough talent to at least put a respectable defense on the field. Will the consistency come? If it does, we could see Indiana in the postseason for the first time since 2007.

- Kevin Trahan

Power Rankings

1. Ohio State – Having survived a tricky road test at Northwestern, it should be smooth sailing for Urban Meyer’s team between now and the November 30 game at Michigan.

2. Wisconsin – Two weeks after a hard-fought loss at Ohio State, a well-rested Wisconsin will host Northwestern in an important game for two conference champion aspirants.

3. Northwestern – Losing at home to Ohio State in a game the Wildcats, by all accounts, could have won is no reason to knock too many power rankings points. Next week’s game at Wisconsin will prompt further evaluation.

4. Michigan – Stomping Minnesota (42-13) was a promising step forward for the Wolverines, who needed to prove they remain among the Big Ten elite following ugly wins against Akron and Connecticut. Michigan should continue to climb with upcoming games against Penn State and Indiana.

5. Nebraska – The defensive strength Nebraska evinced Saturday against Illinois was impressive. Let’s see if the Huskers can build on that effort in the coming weeks.

6. Michigan State – If Nebraska’s defensive effort was impressive, Michigan State’s mini offensive explosion in a 12-point win at Iowa (412 total yards of offense) was equally so.

7. Indiana – Not only did Indiana score 44 points in their 20-point win over Penn State Saturday, they finally showed signs of the defensive improvement coach Kevin Wilson spoke about this offseason.

8. Iowa – The Hawkeyes had a chance to notch their first semi-big win of the season against Michigan State Saturday, but the Spartans' apparent offensive improvement, combined with their customarily stout defense, was enough to roll past Kirk Ferentz’s team at Kinnick Stadium.

9. Penn State – Giving up 44 points to an explosive offense like Indiana’s is somewhat explainable; scoring just 24 against a team ranked near the bottom of most defensive categories isn’t.

10. Illinois – Either Illinois’ offense didn’t play well, or Nebraska’s defense stepped up and held Nathan Scheelhaase and company in check in Saturday’s 20-point loss in Lincoln. The correct explanation probably involves a bit of both.

11. Minnesota – It’s beginning to look like another one of those years for Minnesota: great start in nonconference play, elevated expectations, disappointment against Big Ten competition. Saturday’s blowout loss at Michigan dropped the Gophers to 0-2 in league play. Coach Jerry Kill suffered another seizure Saturday morning.

12. Purdue – We can only hope Purdue figured a few things out over the bye week. At 1-4, and with blowout losses to Cincinnati, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, the Boilermakers ought to have made some adjustments before facing Nebraska next week.