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Weekend Rewind, Week 1: Northwestern vs. Cal

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 44-30 win over Cal, here's the first edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final Thoughts on NU

The Interior Defensive Line’s Role in the Pass Defense

The theme was rampant on Twitter in the third quarter of Saturday’s game: here comes the same old Northwestern secondary. Cal quarterback Jared Goff started to find his rhythm in the third quarter after an injury to cornerback Daniel Jones, and after Jones’ replacement, Dwight White, got beat on a deep touchdown throw, he became an easy target for criticism.

White did deserve some of the criticism, as did fellow cornerback Nick VanHoose, but the major problem was ignored — Goff had all day to throw. Early in the game — save for the first drive — NU did an excellent job pressuring Goff and making sure he didn’t have ample time to throw. For a freshman quarterback playing in his first collegiate game, it’s a tall task to play against that much pressure. However, NU struggled to get pressure early in the second half, and since Goff had more time to throw, he was able to get into a rhythm.

Defensive tackle figured to be an issue for NU heading into the season, and after week one, it’s still one of the biggest areas of concern. Sean McEvilly and Chance Carter are both solid players — as is No. 3 tackle Will Hampton — but they need to do more with so much inexperience behind them. Saturday’s performance was undoubtedly the result of Cal’s up-tempo offense — the Wildcats’ defense was on the field for 99 plays. However, the rotation has to be more consistent.

After McEvilly, Carter and Hampton, Max Chapman figured to be the No. 4 tackle, C.J. Robbins and Greg Kuhar figure to challenge for that spot throughout the season, as well. But regardless of who plays and when, the entire rotation must be more effective in order to take pressure off of a secondary that is already dealing with depth issues as cornerback.

NU tried to combat the problem by mixing things up, and it worked to an extent. There were times when the Wildcats brought Tyler Scott into the middle, with fellow ends Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson rushing from the outside. That worked to an extent, and it’s something we’ll continue to see, but the tackles in the base 4-3 defense must hold up their end of the stick, as well. Without consistent tackle play from the interior defense line, even an improved secondary could look like it’s filled with holes.

- Kevin Trahan

Hints of a deep passing game

You often hear people describe Northwestern’s offense as “option-based.” This is not a categorical mischaracterization, because Northwestern does typically run the option, but going so far as to say the Wildcats’ are “option-based” may be stretching the truth. Northwestern can and does advance the ball in means not remotely related to the option, and on Saturday night, after Kain Colter was concussed on the Wildcats’ second offensive play of the game, it was forced to do so more often than it otherwise would have.

The passing game became more important, and Trevor Siemian responded with an efficient 18-for-29, 276-yard performance. The Wildcats, with no option offense to speak of – Siemian scrambled left while making an option read, got crunched and never ran the play again – adjusted, and depending on how long Colter is forced to sit out, they will need to continue to run their offense without the option staple used so frequently, and to such great effect, last season. They will need to lean on the pass.

Saturday night suggested Northwestern can sustain drives and put up points without the option, but doing so effectively will require a continuation of something the Wildcats sorely lacked – yet offered in spurts Saturday – last season: the deep pass. Superback Dan Vitale caught five passes for 101 yards, Christian Jones caught five for 94 and Tony Jones caught five for 70 – each of them finishing with averages no lower 14.0 yards per catch. The Wildcats, with Siemian under center, connected for big plays, on many occasions in pivotal third-down situations.

It was exactly the dynamic element Northwestern failed to consistently evince last season, when Wildcats receivers averaged 9.9 yards per catch, one of the lower marks in the country, according to Football Study Hall’s Bill Connelly. Connecting on deep throws against Cal’s pass defense, ranked eighth in the Pac 12 last season at 7.1 yards per attempt, is not as impressive as doing it against better Big Ten defenses, but it did provide flashes of the dynamic vertical passing element Northwestern needed, but rarely had when it mattered, in 2012.

If Colter is forced to miss a few games, being able to stretch defenses with big plays will be massively important. An offensive attack built on short throws and conventional handoffs is bland and easy to scheme against; the big play, even if not converted as consistently as more conservative throws, keeps defenses on their toes and, in the absence of a potent option game, gives the Wildcats the offensive dynamism they need if Colter is unavailable.

When Colter does return, the option will, too, and the big play potential Northwestern flashed Saturday with Siemian under center will make Northwestern's offense that much more difficult to defend.

- Chris Johnson

Around the Big Ten

The Michiganska State Hustans

Okay, that’s an absolutely terrible way to combine Michigan State and Nebraska, but the point remains: how awesome would a mixture of the Spartans and the Huskers be? Michigan State has a helluva defense, while the Nebraska offense could be the best in the Big Ten. However, both teams are about as one-dimensional as they come.

Let’s start with Nebraska. The Cornhuskers barely escaped with a 37-34 victory over Wyoming in which they allowed 602 total yards to the Cowboys. I figured the Nebraska defense would be bad, but that’s just pretty unbelievable. And this stat from @dickchatelain on Twitter is equally concerning: Nebraska’s total yards allowed in the last three games are 640 to Wisconsin, 589 to Georgia and 602 to Wyoming. Wyoming ranked 72nd in the country with 389.3 yards per game last season. So yeah, Nebraska… not good.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Michigan State. The Spartans’ offense was terrible last season, but most people forgave that and figured it had to be better this year, teaming up with an outstanding defense. Wrong. MSU struggled with Western Michigan for much of its opener, as its first seven offensive drives ended in punts. The Broncos ranked 62nd in total defense last year and figure to struggle this season under a new coach. Again, not good.

Nebraska was a popular pick to win the Legends Division this season — including by yours truly — but the Huskers simply have to find away to fix their defense if they want to make a return trip to Indianapolis. Meanwhile, Michigan State cannot win the Legends — or much of anything in the Big Ten — in its current form. The law of averages in close games won’t even out if the issue is that you can’t score. MSU and Nebraska both have potential, but they have to figure out how to improve the glaring holes on their respective teams. As it stands, it’s tough to have much confidence in either team’s Legends Division chances. The Michiganska State Hustans, though? They'd be my Legends favorite.

- Kevin Trahan

Michigan, Ohio State good as advertised

Overreaction is of a piece with the college football fan experience. This phenomenon is most pronounced in the immediate aftermath of the first game of the season, when a whole offseason of anticipation and speculative analysis informs game day judgment. Fans still put way too much emphasis on any single game, but the first one always seems like a bigger deal than the rest, even if the opponent isn’t anywhere near the caliber of what that team will face later in the season during conference play.

As an objective observer of the sport, I try to insulate myself from this insta-conclusion-drawing mania. The statement I’m about to make will suggest I’ve fallen into the trap, but to me this seems more reasonable than sensational: Ohio State and Michigan are the best teams in the Big Ten.

The first reaction? They rolled over cupcakes, so what?!  That is correct. Ohio State trounced Buffalo and Michigan cruised past Central Michigan. The Big Ten team covered intently by this site played and defeated a better team in its first game of the season. The results may obscure the main point, but in my eyes it remains true all the same. Ohio State and Michigan have been touted as the league’s best teams this offseason, largely because they have recruited better players than everyone else, but also because the rest of the Big Ten, with few exceptions to the contrary, did not play good football last season, particularly in nonconference play.

A perception of the Big Ten as an old, stodgy, tradition-above-reality artifact was constructed, and Ohio State and Michigan (despite its own nonconference struggles) were seen as the shining exceptions – as the only teams capable of competing on a national scale against the best teams from other leagues. Recruiting rankings suggest the two schools do exist on a different competitive plane, but we will need to wait until conference play to render a final verdict.

Before then, we can look at what Michigan and Ohio State do in nonconference play and pass judgment accordingly. So far, so good for both schools: Ohio State ran through Buffalo so easily in the first quarter, jumping out to a 23-0 lead, it got bored and let Buffalo back in the game. Michigan obliterated its directional MAC little brother so effortlessly that the most important takeaway from the game was seeing true freshman quarterback Shane Morris complete 4-of-6 passes for 59 yards.

Both teams have some rough edges to sand off, at quarterback in particular – Ohio State QB Braxton Miller misfired on several occasions, including a second-quarter pick six where he threw the ball directly at the linebacker standing in front of him; Michigan QB Devin Gardner threw two interceptions and Morris threw one, which is pretty much inexcusable anytime you play for Michigan and are playing against Central Michigan – but every team, no matter how strong or highly regarded in the preseason, stumbles a bit early in the season. No team plays its best football in August.

Neither team of interest did Saturday, but Ohio State and Michigan showed the potential to live up to the conference-best praise that began as scattered opinion, and codified into a consensus, this offseason. Their hype is real.

- Chris Johnson

Power Rankings

1. Ohio State — The Buckeyes were a big careless as the game went on, but they gave no evidence that they can’t be the Big Ten’s best team.

2. Michigan — They handled their directional Michigan school better than MSU did.

3. Northwestern — No Kain Colter and Venric Mark? Cool, here’s 44 points anyways (though the defense gets some credit here, too).

4. Wisconsin — The most exciting part about this week’s game: Wisconsin won by 45… the spread was 44.5.

5. Penn State — Not an overly inspiring performance, but a win on a neutral site against an ACC team isn’t terrible.

6. Nebraska — So about those Blackshirts…

7. Michigan State — Can Mark Dantonio add a fifth quarterback to the competition? Might as well try something at this point.

8. Minnesota — Rashede Hageman is good at football and maybe even better at Twitter.

9. Indiana — The Hoosiers have one of the best offenses in the league, but that defense is still far from adequate.

10. Illinois — After a slow start, Illinois looked fairly competent against Southern Illinois, especially on offense.

11. Iowa — After a solid first half from the Hawkeyes, Greg Davis gave his most Greg Davis performance yet in the second half of a loss to NIU.

12. Purdue — This says it all.