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Grading Northwestern's performance vs. Minnesota

Did the passing game earn a passing grade?

Hannah Foslien

Needless to say, the Cats did not earn high marks in their 24-17 loss to Minnesota. Northwestern's report card:

Running game: A- Justin Jackson is officially Northwestern's best offensive weapon. He out David Cobb-ed Minnesota, bouncing off defenders and fighting for extra yardage on every play. Jackson rushed for 106 yards on 23 carries and even caught four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown. The o-line also opened up some holes against a great rush defense. Siemian scored on a TWO-yard sneak and even Treyvon Green had one of his better games this season, all thanks to the line. The running game was one of the few bright spots on the day.

STAT: Northwestern outgained Minnesota on the ground: 124 to 121 yards.

Passing Game: C The following play late in the first quarter summarizes Northwestern's performance in the passing game. Given protection and time, Siemian slightly underthrew a wide-open Miles Shuler on a go route. If Siemian hits Shuler in stride, it's a touchdown. None of that mattered, however, because Eric Olson was flagged for his second illegal formation penalty of the quarter.

Other than an egregious drop by Pierre Youngblood-Ary in Minnesota territory and the drop from Kyle Prater at the end of the game, the receivers played pretty well. They constantly got separation and made some tough catches.  For the most part the offensive line gave Siemian enough time to go through his progressions. But the line struggled with penalties all game and blitz pick-up in the second half when Minnesota dialed up more pressure.

Once again, Siemian struggled. He failed to connect with open receivers--he threw at the ankles of Shuler on a third-down out-route and overthrew Tony Jones on a deep ball, in the second quarter alone. But that's what we've come to expect of Siemian, who has earned the label of "game manager." While he was turnover free (until the last play) for the second straight game, I'd rather see him take more chances downfield. The conservative, predictable play calling (see below) is partially at fault, but Siemian needs to be more aggressive. The passing game desperately needs a shot in the arm.

STATS: - Siemian went 32 of 50 for 269 yards and an interception.

- 13 different Wildcats had a reception

Defense: C+ "They are who we thought they were, and we let them off the hook!" The Cats knew what Minnesota would do on offense: run the ball and throw on the occasional play-action pass. And they still struggled. NU did a sold job against the run, holding Minnesota to 121 yards on the ground. But that number should have been even lower. The front seven missed too many tackles and the secondary stunk in passing situations. Matt Harris was fooled by double moves on play-action multiple times. And Nick VanHoose, despite the INT, didn't do much better in coverage. Suddenly, without generating turnovers, this defense looked almost pedestrian against a one-dimensional offense.

STAT: Northwestern held the run-heavy Golphers to 3.1 yards per carry.

Special teams: D- I was going to give the special teams crew a much higher grade until the fourth quarter happened. Solomon Vault bobbled a kick return out of bounds at the three-yard line to gave NU its worst field position of either team. Then, after overcoming that terrible field position and going 97 yards for a score, the special teams blew it again, this time giving up a 100-yard TD return, which took nearly all the air out of NU's comeback. Finally, punter Chris Gradone followed those two gaffes with one of his own: an 11-yard shank to give Minnesota the ball at the 50 late in the fourth when NU desperately needed to win the field position battle.

Coaching: C- The play calling was too conservative. But are you surprised? Northwestern has the speed on the outside to make big plays, but Mick McCall and coach Fitz refuse to take more than one or two shots downfield every game. It seemed like Northwestern's offensive game plan was to slowly dink and doink its way down the field. But that obviously didn't work. NU became too predictable. It was either a run to Jackson or a quick hit to a receiver. The Cats had more success when they challenged Minnesota's DBs with intermediate routes, like on that 97-yard scoring drive midway through the fourth quarter. That "aggression," however, was obviously too little too late.

STAT: The Cats had 28 first downs, half of which came in the fourth quarter when the offense started throwing the ball more aggressively.