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Weekend Rewind, Week 4: Northwestern vs. Maine

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 35-21 win over Maine, here’s the fourth edition of the Weekend Rewind:

Final thoughts on NU

This weekend, Ohio State was everything Northwestern wasn’t

Ohio State and Northwestern faced FCS teams Saturday. Only the Buckeyes looked like they were actually facing an FCS team. Florida A&M was awarded a cool $900,000 for the right to be slaughtered at Ohio Stadium, and backup quarterback Kenny Guiton (24-of-34 for 215 yards, six touchdowns) an co. ensured the Rattlers earned, in demoralizing fashion, every last penny of their bounty. The Buckeyes thrashed FAMU, 76-0, covered the – 51 point spread by halftime (OSU led 55-0), outgained its opponent 603-80 and generally dominated a lowly division 1-AA team the way a national championship contender should: efficiently, relentlessly, leaving no hints of doubt. Ohio State’s ability to cruise through its non-conference schedule (Buffalo, San Diego State, Cal, FAMU) didn’t offer any new insight, but it also didn’t raise any serious questions about the Buckeyes heading into conference play. This team is rolling, and will likely continue to do so next week in its Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.

Long after Ohio State’s game (11 am CT) ceased to be competitive, Northwestern took on Maine just one week removed from an eyebrow-raising performance against Western Michigan. The Broncos were soundly beaten at Ryan Field, but through one quarter, they not only led the Wildcats 3-0, but controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Northwestern eventually regained control, and its ugly first-quarter was temporarily forgotten, until Saturday, when – against another inferior opponent – the Wildcats were pushed around in the trenches yet again. Like last week, Northwestern would go on to beat Maine, but unlike last week, the Black Bears had their way with the Wildcats’ defensive tackles for large stretches of the game.

Not having Sean McEvily available, who was nursing a lower body injury, was a big loss, and the Wildcats did, to their credit, make up for their deficiencies up front with two interception returns for touchdowns, but the image of an FCS team pushing around Northwestern’s linemen will linger over the next two weeks. The comparison isn’t perfect, because Northwestern’s FCS opponent would likely crush Ohio State’s (FAMU is bad by FCS standards), but that doesn’t change the fact that a team many expect to not only challenge for the Legends Division title, but possibly knock off Ohio State in its Big Ten opener, struggled to impose its will physically in consecutive weeks against teams that – just like Ohio State did Saturday – the Wildcats should be obliterating.

Two weeks out from the Buckeyes’ visit October 5, Saturday’s performance, following an uninspiring win over Western Michigan, is not a good look.

- Chris Johnson

Turnovers are no accident

Originally, this piece was going to be about the defensive tackles and how their inconsistent play so far has forced the linebackers to step up in run support, leaving NU vulnerable to the play action pass. However, I've probably written about that far more than I should have in the past couple weeks, so I'm changing my tone altogether. The defense may have some holes, but it's as opportunistic as they come, and that's no accident — not when the same thing keeps happening four weeks into the season.

The Wildcats lead the nation with 10 interceptions, with many of those picks coming off tipped balls. Because NU's pass rush is so strong this year, teams are getting rid of the ball a lot quicker, making the defensive less effective in the traditional sense. So to combat that, NU's defensive linemen are getting their hands up to tip balls into the air, and it's working.

"We try to stress rips, strips, tips, because tips equal picks," safety Traveon Henry said after the Syracuse game.

The tipped passes may be more frequent this year, but NU's opportunistic mentality on defense isn't a new development. The Wildcats ranked 11th in turnover margin last year — they're currently 19th this season — and said they took note from the Chicago Bears' strategy of forcing turnovers, particularly the "Peanut Punch" from cornerback Charles Tillman. This year, the tipped pass is becoming an awfully good strategy for NU.

So while there might be some major holes on NU's defense, particularly in the middle of the unit, but turnovers are the great equalizer. If NU's defensive linemen continue to get their hands up and the secondary and linbackers continue their opportunistic nature, who's to say the defense can't help the Wildcats win some big games?

- Kevin Trahan

Around the Big Ten

Michigan State still can’t put it all together

The story has become all too familiar: Michigan State plays some of the best defense in the country, good enough to challenge the best teams in the Big Ten, but the offense fails to hold up its end of the bargain. And so it was again Saturday, when Michigan State traveled to Notre Dame looking for its first big non-conference win of the season after rolling through Western Michigan, South Florida and Youngstown State in succession. The Spartans’ 55-17 win against the Penguins, in which sophomore quarterback Connor Cook threw for over 200 yards and four touchdowns in the first half and seemingly brought order to an unsettled quarterback pecking order, stoked genuine optimism that the offense – so inept through the first two weeks of the season that defensive end Shilique Calhoun had scored more touchdowns, thanks to fumble-sixes (which is a term I think we should all use more often) and one pick-six, than the unit – had finally found an identity.

Expectations were tempered by the fact that Michigan State’s purported offensive breakthrough came against an FCS team; they had yet to face a defense of Notre Dame’s caliber. When they did Saturday, the old Spartans’ offense was awoken from its one-week slumber, as Michigan State fell 17-13 to the Irish in a game it had every right to win. The Spartans scraped just 13 points out of four trips to the red zone and let another strong defensive effort – Notre Dame was limited to 220 total yards (MSU finished with 254), including 142 passing – go to waste.

Poor offensive execution doesn’t explain Michigan State’s loss – not by itself. The Spartans were flagged for 10 penalties, including four pass interference calls ESPN blogger Adam Rittenberg, who was in attendance at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday, didn’t consider “obvious maulings.” That’s another story for another day. The biggest issue for the Spartans remains an offense that, despite the glimmer of hope offered by last week’s rout, cannot find any sense of consistency or explosiveness or balance. This has to be immensely frustrating for Michigan State fans – I can only imagine, looking ahead each week, knowing exactly what to expect from the defense, but shuddering at the thought of the offense’s inevitable struggle. And just when the Spartans believed they had found their starting quarterback in Cook, coach Mark Dantonio decided to remove him in a critical spot in the fourth quarter.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Michigan State’s unsightly offense was a hindrance, but it didn’t limit Michigan State to the point it was actually losing games. Against Notre Dame’s defense, talented and athletic and deep, Michigan State proved it can’t expect to win games on the strength of its defense alone. It will need a complete effort on both sides of the ball to beat good teams.

We’ve yet to see it happen. 

- Chris Johnson

Is this Minnesota's year?

All of Jerry Kill's coaching turnarounds have happened in year three. Can he do it again in his third year at Minnesota? There's certainly more momentum surrounding the program now than when Tim Brewster was fired before Kill's arrival. The Gophers are 4-0 with an impressive win over San Jose State. However, there is reason for skepticism. In fact, this start looks a lot like last year's.

Last year, the Gophers started out 4-0, thanks to a lackluster non-conference schedule. This year's could have been better, but Kill decided a game at North Carolina was too hard, so instead, San Jose State became the toughest game on the schedule. So yes, Minnesota might be 4-0, but it's a soft 4-0.

But there's reason to believe this year might be different. The Gophers have a very strong, physical rushing attack that ranks 13th in the nation and freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner will only improve as the season goes on (Philip Nelson is pretty good at QB, too). The Gophers' defense still needs work in some areas, but they have a monster defensive line, including Ra'Shede Hageman, who might be the best quote in the history of college football — examples here, here and here. I talked to him for a bit at Big Ten Media Days and he's hilarious.

But are Hageman's Gophers for real? We'll find out this weekend in Minnesota's game against Iowa. Last year, the Gophers' undefeated run came to a screeching halt in a 31-13 loss to the Hawkeyes, and this Iowa team is much better than that one. So while everyone's focus is on Floyd in this game, it could also be Minnesota's coming out party (or Iowa's, for that matter). The pieces seem to be in place for Minnesota to take the next step — now the Gophers have to prove it on the field.

- Kevin Trahan

Power rankings 

1. Ohio State – The beatdown the Buckeyes laid on Florida A&M less resembled a football game than a controlled, methodical, punishing massacre. Ohio State’s 76-point victory didn’t tell us much, but it certainly doesn’t nudge coach Urban Meyer’s team out of the top ranking it has held all season.

2. Wisconsin – The power-ranking hive minds at InsideNU don’t put as much weight on wins and losses as AP or Coaches poll voters. Which is why we're willing to spin the Badgers' controversial (and hard-fought) loss last week at Arizona State as a positive and Saturday's bulldozing of Purdue as validation. The result: a two-spot jump in the rankings.

3. Northwestern – For the second straight week, Northwestern looked unimpressive against a team it should have dominated. Playing a listless first quarter against Western Michigan was one thing; producing four quarters of offensive ugliness a mere two weeks before Ohio State visits Evanston for the biggest game of Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure is a discouraging sign.

4. Michigan – One week after it barely survived Akron at home, Michigan fought tooth and nail just to get past a UConn team that lost to Towson at home earlier this season. The Wolverines have a lot of issues to clean up on both sides of the ball.

5. Nebraska – A controversy-filled week that included an embarrassing 20-point home loss to UCLA, coach Bo Pelini being dismissive of program legend Tommie Frazier’s subsequent urging for a defensive staff overhaul, and the release of a taped profane tirade Pelini unfurled two years ago condemning fans and local columnists led into Saturday’s game against South Dakota State. The Huskers rolled, 59-30, in a game that, at least temporarily, directed attention back to football.

6. Michigan State – Unless the Spartans’ offense improves, it’s going to be another season of missed opportunities and near misses. After falling at Notre Dame Saturday, Michigan State will use its bye week to attempt to rediscover itself offensively, again, before traveling to Iowa Oct. 5.

7. Penn State – After giving up 34 points in a three-point home loss to UCF, Penn State completed a symmetrical two-week run by rolling up 34 and shutting out Kent State.

8. Minnesota – Two weeks of weird desert-based scheduling (vs. UNLV, at New Mexico State) were followed up by a worryingly tight (29-12) win over Western Illinois, none of which really gave us an indication of how good Minnesota actually was. Saturday’s 43-24 victory over San Jose State and NFL-bound quarterback David Fales helped clear things up.

9. Illinois – It was a bye week for Tim Beckman’s team. The Illini are ranked near the bottom right now, but that’s more a product of uncertainty – I’m still not sure what to think; last season was such an abject disaster that it’s not crazy to expect this team to spontaneously combust at some point – than a genuine assessment of comparative “power”.

10. Iowa – The transitive property typically isn’t an accurate barometer of team quality. That said, Iowa’s 59-3 pasting of Western Michigan, coming one week after Northwestern’s 38-17 win over the Broncos, says one of three things: Iowa is better than we thought, Western Michigan didn’t play as well against Iowa as it did Northwestern or Northwestern should have beaten the Broncos by a few more points. The last one makes the most sense.

11. Indiana – Saturday’s game against Missouri was a great chance for the Big Ten to score a win against the almighty SEC. The Tigers are one of the league’s weaker teams, but for Indiana, a win would have granted the Big Ten at least a few league pride points. The Hoosiers didn’t win (45-28).

12. Purdue – Last week’s encouraging seven-point home loss to Notre Dame appears to have been a mirage. The Boilermakers are not a good football team; Wisconsin amassed 388 yards and five touchdowns on the ground in a 41-10 romp at Camp Randall Stadium.