It's easy to play the blame game when your team underperforms. But when a team such as Northwestern struggles in so many areas, it's difficult to pick just one scapegoat. Most of the blame from Northwestern fans seems to be directed at the coaching staff, but what about the players on the field? Which position unit is underperforming the most?
There is no obvious answer to this question. You could make a valid case for any of the position groups. And I encourage each of our readers to do so in the comment section. As for my answer...
I approached this question by answering another question: What most prevented Northwestern from winning its first two games? To me the answer is simple: its offense.
The Cats rank 112th in the nation in scoring offense at just 19.5 points per game. Last season they averaged 31.7 points per contest. What's even more concerning is NU's first half scoring woes--the Cats have scored a meager seven points in the first half this season. But that's a problem worth discussing in another article.
While NU's defense is ranked 81st nationally (27 points per game), it is not at fault. The defense has held two potent offenses in check and put NU in a position to win both games despite dismal offensive starts.
So if the offense is to blame, which position group on offense is most underperforming, then? It's tempting to blame the running backs, which have collectively averaged under 2.5 yards per carry. NU ranks 115th in the nation in rushing yards at 90 per game.
Those are dreadful numbers. But the question asks which group has most underperformed, not which group has performed the worst. Before the season started, it was clear running back was one of NU's deepest positions. That's why we at InsideNU downplayed the significance of Venric Mark's transfer.
But were we expecting a Mark-less backfield full of freshmen to rush for 200 yards per game? Of course not. Although Treyvon Green (2.7 YPC) has had a disappointing couple games, Justin Jackson (4.6 YPC) and Solomon Vault (4.3 YPC) have exceeded expectations in limited action. Has the running game, or lack thereof, contributed to NU's rough start? Absolutely. But the running backs are not the most underperforming members of the offense. There are bigger problems here.
One of those problems is the quarterback play of Trevor Siemian. Siemian has definitely underperformed. He has a total QBR of 31.9, which is 109th in the country. He has thrown 3 interceptions and just 2 touchdowns and has a completion percentage of 58.8 (81st in the country). He has shown in the past that he can be better. Sure Mark and the Joneses are out, and the receiving core is dealing with a case of the drops, but Siemian has too many weapons around him to be putting up pedestrian numbers.
Another reason why Siemian's numbers are down is because of poor protection, which brings me to my answer to the question at hand--the offensive line is the most underperforming position group on this team. Poor o-line play explains the aforementioned struggles in the ground game and through the air.
In order to be successful, running backs need holes to run through. Many attribute the lack of big running plays to the departure of Mark. But Jackson and Vault are very capable of busting loose — they just haven't had big enough gaps to explode through. The longest run of the season by any running back on NU is 13 yards.
Moreover, like any passing quarterback, Siemian is at his best when he's given time to find open receivers. However, most of the time the pressure gets to him and he either rushes throws, which often lead to turnovers, throws the ball away or gets sacked. Siemian has been sacked seven times this season. The Cats are 117th in the nation in sacks allowed per game.
Every part of NU's offense has struggled, but a lot of that is a result of poor line play. While we didn't expect NU's o-line to be amazing this season, we predicted it would be about average in the Big Ten. Instead, the line has failed to facilitate a strong ground game and allowed more sacks per game than any team in the conference. Last year the Cats allowed only 16 sacks, which was 22nd in the nation. This year, with a fairly experienced line, NU is on pace for 42 sacks. If that's not underperforming, I don't know what is.