For Northwestern under Pat Fitzgerald, the narrative has remained the same for nine years: The defense is what keeps this team from being great (or some years, even good). After the start today, people on our Twitter feed were all over the Wildcats' defense, and even so were prominent media personalities.
Narratives will be narratives, and after the dreadful defenses of the middle of the Pat Fitzgerald era (so far), it's doubtful the Wildcats will ever shake the "bad defense" label. But despite the final score, the Wildcats' defense actually played pretty well, and that unit should give hope to NU fans that this season is far from lost.
That said, the first half was absolutely hideous for Northwestern defensively. That's on the coaches, who were unprepared going in and didn't adjust fast enough. But part of the reason the Wildcats were so unprepared is that they had no idea what was coming.
This was freshman Luke Rubenzer's first game, and Cal's use of him as a running quarterback in place of Jared Goff at times caught the Wildcats off guard, since they'd never seen that gameplan from the Bears before. It would be like a team planning for only Trevor Siemian, then having to defend Kain Colter as well, without having seen him.
"The two-quarterback thing was something we had no idea (about)," Fitzgerald said.
Cal's refusal to run the ball last year was part of why the Bears' offense struggled so much with efficiency throughout the season, and their willingness to run at the beginning of this game surprised NU, and ultimately won them the game. A team that could barely string together a drive last year put together an 18-play touchdown drive to win the game, due largely to the variance that the running game provided. Cal rushed 23 times for 80 yards in the first half, which wasn't great, but was enough to open everything up.
However, in the second half, the Wildcats did adjust, and they were pretty damn good. Noting the changes in Cal's gameplan, the Wildcats scrapped the pass-focused 3-3-5 defense (with three defensive linemen and Jimmy Hall shifting to nickelback) and focused more on getting a pass rush and stopping the run. It worked. The Bears rushed 22 more times, but for only 34 more yards. Even the passing game struggled. Overall, Cal had a pretty bad offensive day.
Cal's offense had 4.92 yards per play. That's horrendous. NU had 4.43 yards per play. That's unfathomable. Only 7 teams dogs worse for 2013.— Jon Davis (@NUHighlights) August 30, 2014
After game one, there aren't going to be more tricks. And had the Wildcats and Bears played a couple weeks down the line, the score could've been far different. Without the surprise running threat, Cal doesn't get that efficiency going, and it's why the Bears still should be weary about this season.
NU's defense is the most athletic and talented it has ever been, and once it adjusted, it showed that. Sure, the coaches should have adjusted faster, but there's reason to believe they won't be scrambling as much come week two (or any other week this season).
If the Wildcats really do crash and burn this season — the evidence, as described above, suggests that's a little premature — it will be due to their inability to establish an offensive identity that fits their personnel.
As Jon tweeted, the offense was absolutely abysmal on Saturday against a defense that almost assuredly won't be much above average this season. Part of that is due to Trevor Siemian playing worse than we know he's capable of, and part of it is because there were so many drops, which isn't probable to happen often. So no, NU's offense probably won't be this bad every week.
But those numbers are still really bad, regardless of the drops and Siemian's semi-uncharacteristic struggles. And for this season to turn around, they need to improve.
The good news is that the personnel is there to complete such a turnaround. That might not be the popular opinion of people who claim that the losses of Venric Mark and Christian Jones will be too much to overcome, but the Wildcats have the playmakers to get the explosive plays they so desperately need, and the the talent to be efficient at the same time.
Freshmen running backs Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault both flashed their brilliance. Both are stronger runners than they look — Jackson is the real deal — and they have the ability to break things open in both the running and passing games. Miles Shuler was all over the field when he was healthy and made a few nice grabs. Tony Jones was surprisingly consistent, Dan Vitale was extremely effective when he finally got the ball and Cameron Dickerson, for all his struggles, still got enough separation to be a very effective receiver. Even the much-maligned offensive line improved in pass protection as the game went on (even if it did have some issues in run blocking).
Personnel is not a problem, and this group has the talent and explosiveness to be at least an above average Big Ten offense. But with gameplans like the one Saturday, it's going to be difficult for this group of players to live up to their collective potential.
Northwestern is a spread team through and through — the Wildcats are even credited with popularizing the offense. But last year, and in the first game of 2014, NU has been unwilling to fully commit itself to the spread, even though it has all the personnel to be successful.
Too often, the Wildcats abandon the spread and all of its advantages — "spreading the field" and forcing the defense to be responsible for more space, namely — to become a situational power team. A number of times on third-and fourth-and-short, NU went with a power run against a stacked box and failed to convert. With the power look, the defense knew what was coming and stacked the box, not having to be responsible for anyone on the edge. It's a tactic that former NU linebacker and InsideNU writer Nate Williams, who went against the spread so often in practice, didn't understand.
@insidenu a QB draw with it spread out is still a better play than going under center in a power run formation.— Nate Williams (@BigEasyCat44) August 30, 2014
NU offensive coordinator Mick McCall has put together some genius offenses in the past. The Colter/Siemian/Venric offense of 2012 fully committed to the spread and flummoxed Big Ten teams, as did the pass-heavy Mike Kafka offense that Siemian suggested we would see this year.
If the personnel in 2009 and 2012 could be successful in the spread, this team absolutely can. But hardly anyone — especially this team — is going to be successful in such a strange, situational spread/power hybrid that doesn't just allow the offense to go.
If NU takes advantage of the weapons at its disposal, this season will turn around, and the Wildcats have a chance to make everyone forget this game happened. If not, it's going to be another long fall in Evanston.