Every week, InsideNU writers Josh Rosenblat and Henry Bushnell will wrap up Northwestern game coverage with some final thoughts (we'll try to stay away from topics addressed in game columns), along with our big takeaways from the rest of the Big Ten. Following Northwestern's 31-24 loss to Cal, here's the 2014 Week 1 edition of the Weekend Rewind:
Prevailing Thoughts on Northwestern
Blame starts with coaches
A lot of things went wrong for Northwestern Saturday. And there are a lot of people who have, will, and should shoulder partial blame for the 31-24 loss to Cal. But the brunt of the criticism must be steered towards this coaching staff.
Two things from Saturday afternoon should be extremely bothersome. First of all, preparation was lackluster. It’s unfathomable for players to not be prepared for week one from an energy and intensity standpoint, so I don’t think that was the problem. This team was schematically unprepared, and the coaching staff – Pat Fitzgerald, Mick McCall and Mike Hankwitz in particular – must take responsibility for that.
We can talk about Cal springing the surprise of the two-QB system all we want, but that shouldn’t be an excuse. It shouldn’t be startling news to anybody, much less the coaching staff, that teams add to their playbook over the offseason. Heck, Northwestern had eight months to infuse its offensive or defensive playbook with something unique and creative – but we’ll discuss that in a bit. What the excuse of Cal’s dual-threat look points to is the failure of this staff to make adjustments.
The game of football, perhaps more than any other sport, is constantly changing – not just from year to year, but from month to month, game to game, quarter to quarter, drive to drive, play to play. Therefore, the most astute coaches and coordinators are the ones who are willing to deviate from their established personal philosophies to account for those changes. That has been a weakness of this staff, and it blatantly reappeared Saturday.
Fitzgerald’s and Hankwitz’s inability to adjust quickly enough was costly. In the end, this failure was the difference between a 24-point 3rd-quarter deficit and a 10 or 14-point one. And the extent of that deficit ended up being the difference between a win and a loss.
Hankwitz’s system and playcalling have been particularly perplexing. The typical go-to refrains from fans, not just Northwestern fans, are "blitz more" or "be more aggressive," but this isn’t merely an ignorant echo of that – Northwestern needs to do just that. It needs to spice things up a bit. This is a talented defense, but it’s not talented enough to succeed in such a vanilla system that necessitates players winning individual battles. Hankewitz doesn’t necessarily need to blitz more, but he needs to blitz more creatively. Not once was Cal confused on offense Saturday, and that’s become the norm for Northwestern opponents.
McCall’s offense has seemingly become stagnant and rudimentary as well. Of course, Trevor Siemian didn’t have his best game, but did we see any knew wrinkles? Did we see any innovative methods of stretching the field and creating space? Fixate on the trick play all you want, but the offense was once again unimaginative. Northwestern has a diverse set of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, but that means nothing if they're not utilized in a way that takes advantage of their unique abilities.
Furthermore, some of the individual playcalling decisions are just simply illogical. As our Kevin Trahan wrote:
Too often, the Wildcats will abandon the spread an 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.
That stood out on a 1st-quarter 4th-and-1 play that failed. Then, late in the game, Northwestern faced a 3rd-and-5, needing to convert, in what was surely four-down territory. But inexplicably, McCall/Fitzgerald decided to run on third down (two-yard gain) and then throw on fourth (incompletion, turnover on downs).
Just because you know you’re going to go for it on 4th, doesn’t mean you run the ball on 3rd. Better to just take 2 chances throwing it— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) August 30, 2014
Or ideally, spread em out, call two plays, let Siemian check to a run/pass based on the look he gets— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) August 30, 2014
Overall, the lack of preparation was alarming, and the result, coupled with the in-game decisions, was embarrassing. These are just a few examples of the failures of a coaching staff that needs to start coming under increasing scrutiny.
- Henry Bushnell
It's been less than 24 hours and I have already heard Northwestern fans clamoring for Trevor Siemian's job. I'm just going to keep this short, although it won't be very sweet. Without Trevor Siemian, Northwestern would not win a single Big Ten game. Maybe they'd beat Purdue. MAYBE.
Everyone clamoring for Matt Alviti needs to calm down. He's not even the second quarterback on the roster. That would Zack Oliver. And neither Alvit nor Oliver is even close to being ready to play at the level Siemian plays at. Northwestern could lose anyone else on its roster and still battle to be close to .500, without Siemian the team would be lost.
Now that's not to say Siemian is an All-Big Ten quarterback because he's not. But I choose to look at his performance against Cal as more of an aberration than the norm. He had a poor day accuracy-wise against Cal and was late on some throws. He also under threw a receiver for his first interception. But he also threw some very catchable balls that were dropped and was impressive moving around and picking up small chunks of yards with his legs.
Overall, Siemian is in no danger of losing his job and should not be. He's so far ahead of both Oliver and Alviti that it wouldn't even be worth the "experience" either would gain. The season is not lost for Northwestern and it wouldn't be reasonable to take the job away from Siemian. One bad game will not but his job in jeopardy.
- Josh Rosenblat
Around the Big Ten
Wisconsin falls apart in Houston
With a 17-7 lead over LSU midway through the 3rd quarter, Gary Anderson and his Wisconsin Badgers faced a 4th-and-1 from the LSU 3-yard line. Up to this point, Wisconsin had played a more than respectable game, and had Anderson settled for the field goal, there wouldn’t have been many qualms, nor would the Badgers have relinquished their grasp on the contest.
But instead, Anderson kept his offense on the field, a decision emblematic of the whole game up to that point. On the ensuing 4th down, Corey Clement slammed up the middle for a first down. A play later, Clement sliced into the end zone, and a statement was seemingly made – not just on that play, but throughout the first two-plus quarters in Houston. This Wisconsin team was legit.
Throughout the offseason, questions swirled around Madison. The Badgers’ entire defensive front seven from a year ago was gone, their quarterback situation was unsettled, and the roster was desperate for impactful pass catchers.
At that point in the third quarter however, those questions were less than prevalent. Wisconsin looked like… well, like Wisconsin. The Badgers’ run defense was as stout and disciplined as ever, their offensive line was moving bodies as if they were inanimate objects, and Melvin Gordon’s yards per carry average was habitually spectacular.
But with the game seemingly in control, and those aforementioned questions behind them, Anderson and co. were caught out by a classic Les Miles fake punt, and everything came crashing back down to earth. Wisconsin crumbled.
Suddenly, all the suspected issues resurfaced. The ground game sputtered – and at times, was strangely abandoned – and QB Tanner McEvoy was exposed. Receivers couldn’t separate, McEvoy, whose final line read 8 for 24, 50 yards, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, became flustered and out of sync, and the offense screeched to a halt. And the defensive front, hit hard by injuries, completely and utterly succumbed.
Even with the Badgers clinging to a 24-21 lead in the 4th, you could sense that the game had slipped away. LSU began to gash that stricken front seven, and the eventual 28-24 Tigers lead, which would become the final tally, seemed inevitable.
As with any single game, it’s dangerous to draw dramatic conclusions. But with regards to Wisconsin, the opening week loss goes a long way to confirming preseason narratives.
This is still a strong team, and perhaps strong enough to be considered the favorite to win the Big Ten West. After all, they did dominate a top-15 team for 35 minutes, which is more than any other team in the conference can say.
But it’s those three problem areas – quarterback, pass catchers, and the defensive front – that will hold the Badgers back. That imposing running game can only carry them so far. Anderson must sort out the quarterback situation (surely he will give Joel Stave a chance), and if he doesn’t, this Wisconsin team will lose one or two games that the rest of the roster suggests it shouldn’t.
- Henry Bushnell
Ohio State, Iowa, Penn State struggle
These three games and really each team's season depends on the quarterback position with the development of emerging stars Christian Hackenburg (Penn State) and Jake Rudock (Iowa) and the task of replacing Braxton Miller thrust on Ohio State's JT Barrett. In each game, it was the quarterbacks who played pretty well but it was the rebuilding defenses that struggled.
In Ohio State's case, defending against a triple option team in Navy is never an easy task especially in week one. The Midshipmen racked up almost six yards per carry against the Buckeyes and really did a nice job controlling the tempo and keeping Barrett and the offense off the field. Iowa battled to subdue Northern Iowa's passing attack. And Penn State barely eked out a two-point win over Central Florida while losing the turnover battle.
Each of these teams should be major factors in the Big Ten race in their respective divisions (Iowa in the West and Ohio State and Penn State in the East) but their week one troubles shouldn't be taken too seriously. All of these teams will come around.
- Josh Rosenblat
Northwestern Play of the Week
There was one exception to the simplicity of Northwestern's offense on Saturday. It turned redshirt freshman superback Jayme Taylor into a quarterback and quarterback Trevor Siemian into a receiver.
Behind-the-back catch of the week
Nebraska wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp made this absurd catch in the 3rd quarter of Nebraska's 55-7 win over Florida Atlantic:
Chubby Brazilian kicker dance of the week
Rafael Gaglianone is a freshman kicker at Wisconsin. He’s also Brazilian, played soccer in high school, and packs a few more pounds than your average college kicker. On the football field in high school, he apparently hit a 57-yard field goal, and yesterday against LSU, he nailed a 51-yarder. Naturally, he followed it up with this dance: