To say the least, it was not an ideal start for Northwestern against the Western Michigan Broncos.
The Wildcats couldn’t find any offensive rhythm in the first quarter, with the first three series ending in an interception, a punt and a missed field goal despite starting in WMU territory each time.
In fact, neither team converted a third down in the first quarter, though the Broncos did manage to put together enough offense to enter NU territory and hit a field goal, scoring with just over two minutes left in the first quarter.
Maybe it was the 8 p.m. start, but the Cats did not seem to be awake in the first quarter. Finally, with 11 minutes left in the first half, NU showed signs of life in the form of an Ibraheim Campbell interception, his third in three games this season. Dating back to last season, Campbell has an interception in the last five games.
Starting at NU’s 43-yard line, quarterback Kain Colter drove the offense down the field, aided by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that put NU in WMU’s red zone, and took it in himself from four yards out to give NU the 7-3 lead.
And just like that, NU fell back asleep; more specifically, cornerback Dwight White slept through a 75-yard touchdown pass on the next play that put WMU up 10-7 midway through the second quarter.
Colter responded with a quick drive, aided by a pass interference call, and hit Christian Jones for the touchdown and the lead once again.
After the ensuing WMU three and out, Colter once again took the Cats down the field for a third straight score, a rushing touchdown by running back Mike Trumpy.
After a Budzien field goal with two second left in the half, the Cats took a 24-10 lead into the break.
WMU opened the second half with a stalled drive, and NU took over at its own 13-yard line. Colter started the drive and took the offense to the WMU 22-yard line before going down with an apparent injury (he was fine and came back in the next series). Siemian took over and finished the drive, completing a pass then handing off to Treyvon Green, who found the end zone for the 31-10 lead.
The Broncos tacked on a touchdown just before the end of the third quarter, so the NU lead remained at 14 heading into the fourth quarter.
The final dagger came at the beginning of the fourth quarter, with a 23-yard Colter run followed by a 42-yard touchdown run by Green as NU took a 38-17 lead.
From there, coach Pat Fitzgerald gave some backups a chance to take the field, including true freshman Warren Long, a running back from Union City, Cali., who obviously will not be taking a redshirt year. He was also returning kickoffs against Western Michigan, and carried the ball twice for 13 yards.
No. 3 quarterback Zack Oliver took over for the last four-plus minutes of the game, and true freshman Matt Harris saw some time at cornerback.
The end result, 38-17 NU, was a comfortable win, but the journey to get there was not so smooth.
What went well:
On NU’s third offensive series, Christian Jones went down hard in the end zone and went to the locker room with an “upper body injury.” However, he returned a few minutes later and didn’t seem to have any lingering effects from the hit. So that’s a positive.
NU finally did find some offensive rhythm midway through the second quarter and they did it just like coach Pat Fitzgerald likes it: by spreading the ball around. The first touchdown was scored on a Colter quarterback sneak, the second on a Colter pass to Jones, and the third on a run by Trumpy. The Cats do not lack offensive variety. Treyvon Green also added two rushing touchdowns in the second half.
Eventually, the Cats did take over the game as expected. The second half was more positives than negatives, from the improved run blocking to the increased pass rush to the performance of Treyvon Green and the emergence of true freshman running back Warren Long. But the first half, particularly the first quarter, was worrisome. See below.
What went poorly:
…in the first quarter: everything.
The offense looked completely lost on the first two series of the game. After a nice kickoff return by true Warren Long and two runs by Treyvon Green, NU’s offensive plays went as follows: interception, loss of two, holding penalty, false start, sack, gain of two, punt. It might not cost them against Western Michigan, but a certain team from Columbus, Ohio rolls into town in three weeks and the Cats won’t be as lucky come October 5 if they start the same way.
The offensive line, which has looked fairly good over the first two weeks, especially given that three of the five linemen are starting for the first time, looked overwhelmed from the start, allowing two sacks in the first quarter and failing to open any holes for either the running backs or Colter. To be fair, they did adjust decently and gave Colter enough pass protection to throw a touchdown in the first half and paved the way for the Green touchdown to open the second half.
Jeff Budzien missed a 42-yard field goal. What?!
NU is really feeling the effects of not having cornerback Daniel Jones, who went down with an injury in the first game of the year. Backup Dwight White has not stepped up enough in his absence and he has become the obvious weak link in the secondary. Opposing teams are targeting him time and time again, and he has yet to prove that he’s up to the challenge. If anything, his play seems to be declining.