Northwestern lost its first Big Ten game of the season on Saturday in Minneapolis. Here's a look back at what went wrong and what went right.
1. The defense still played well
It wasn't the defense's best day, to be sure. The corners let some players get open that they shouldn't have, and the linebackers struggled on Minnesota's first touchdown drive, of the game, but in all, the defense wasn't bad. Minnesota running back David Cobb, as hyped as he is, didn't really get anything going.
People will blame the loss on the cornerback play, or on the few times Minnesota broke out for a "big" (read: 15-yard) play, but the defense did all it could in this game. It's pretty crazy to see a Northwestern team that's so good on defense and so bad on offense, but it looks like the defense is going to have to win games for the Wildcats, not just carry them.
2. Absymal play-calling hurts NU again
The "execution" wasn't what it was in the Wisconsin and Penn State games, and it's undoubtedly what Pat Fitzgerald will blame for the loss. But the gameplan today was absolutely abysmal, and it's inexcusable, no matter how much football Fitzgerald and Mick McCall have coached. We'll get more into the specifics later this week, but the gameplan played right into the Wildcats' weaknesses.
NU's biggest issue on offense has been success rate, meaning the Wildcats have struggled to maintain drives. That was going to be true against Minnesota, which has a pretty solid defense. With that in mind, NU needed to try for big chunks of yardage. But instead, the Wildcats tried to play "small ball," to borrow a baseball term, and they tried to get small chunks of yardage to get a first down every few plays. That's not a way this offense can be effective, and it's not the way anyone can be effective against Minnesota. The failure to recognize that is a terrible mistake by NU's offense.
3. So what does this mean for the Big Ten West?
Minnesota would like to think it's the favorite, but that's probably not true given that the Gophers are going to have to go through Iowa, Ohio State, Nebraska and Wisconsin all in the final four weeks to win the division. Northwestern's path to a division certainly isn't over, but it's far from finished. What this does do is take some of the luster out of the Northwestern-Nebraska game next weekend. And if the coaches make the same mistakes again, a twice-promising season could turn bad.