Is it time to start worrying about this offense?
Northwestern scored five touchdowns against Maine, but two of them came from the defense. In fact, nearly one-fifth (five out of 21) of the touchdowns this season have been scored by the defense. Without this defensive help, would the Wildcats be 4-0? Maybe not.
Remember: it was an interception return for a touchdown by Collin Ellis that halted Cal’s momentum in the first game on the season, and another one by him that sealed it. Against Maine, senior linebacker Damien Proby and sophomore defensive end Dean Lowry both took interceptions to the house. Without those defensive touchdowns, both games would have gone from 14-point wins to ties.
Much like the first half against Western Michigan last week, the NU offense looked completely out of sorts for most of the game against Maine. Quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian finished a combined 10-17 for 122 yards. Colter had one touchdown pass but also threw an interception on a ball thrown over the head of Tony Jones.
The quarterbacks’ job was not eased by the offensive line, who gave up two sacks but also allowed several quarterback hurries, forcing Colter and Siemian to release the ball before the receivers could run their routes.
To complete the trifecta of bad play, running back Warren Long fumbled the ball in the fourth quarter, though mistakes like that are to be expected from a freshman.
“We’re moving the ball (and) we get self-inflicted wounds either with missing some throws, targeting guys wrong up front, protection issues, things of that nature, penalties,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve just got to execute cleaner on offense. Today it just looked like some discipline and fundamental and technique things. Those are all coachable and correctable.”
Luckily for the Cats, the defense did step up with two touchdowns and the team did finally pull away from the FCS team, and they came out relatively injury-free before Ohio State comes to town in two weeks. Plus, the defense doesn’t mind picking up the offense when they’re down.
“Offense was having a rough day at the beginning of it,” Proby said. “Kain came to a few defensive players, like ‘Hey guys, just get us going. Just get the ball rolling right now and we’ll get it going from there.’ We’re not going to sit here and jump from excitement for any bad offensive play but we’re happy to go out there and put the fire out at any given point.”
This isn’t to excuse the defense from the overall sloppy execution of the game; they didn’t have a stellar day against the Black Bears either. But the offense cannot continue to rely on defensive touchdowns to save the day, especially with upcoming games against teams like Ohio State and Wisconsin, who do not turn the ball over very much. (Wisconsin has four turnovers this season while Ohio State has five, compared to Northwestern’s seven).
To be fair, NU has been missing a key piece of their offense for all but a few snaps this season. All-American running back Venric Mark has been out with a “lower body injury,” and his absence has been huge blow to the option offense that Colter usually runs so well. The Cats have tried it with other backs—Treyvon Green and Mike Trumpy—but it has not, for the most part, succeeded without Mark’s speed.
The lone bright spot on the offense this week was receiver Tony Jones, who has really shined all season. Against Maine, he nabbed six catches for 69 yards and a score. That brings his season total to 24 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns. He has been the playmaker so far but he knows the offense as a whole has some room for improvement.
“It’s really just execution. We’re really just not making all the plays that need to be made in order to play at the level that we feel like we’re capable of playing at,” Jones said. “It’s obviously great to win the ball game, but we know that we’ve got so much left in the tank, which is at the same time pretty exciting to know that we’re winning ball games.”
So a win’s a win—for now.