Through two games, Northwestern isn't just losing the game's key battles, but also failing to do the little things. The team needs to improve on both sides of the ball in game three to prove they are ready for conference play. Three big things for Northwestern's match-up with Western Illinois:
1. Move the ball
The Northwestern offense has been atrocious to this point. They only have a successful play on 27.6 percent of downs, which ranks 117th in the nation, and their 19.5 points per game is 112th. The 'Cats need to find some consistency moving the ball Saturday. Finally, they face a weaker opponent, whom they should beat in one-on-ones and own at the line of scrimmage. This is Northwestern's opportunity to find an offensive scheme that produces consistent scoring drives. While putting up points and getting the W needs to come first, NU should also experiment some on offense to develop a successful strategy.
2. No big plays
Northwestern was hurt by some serious lapses in coverage in its first two games. Traveon Henry was beat by wideout Trevor Davis for a 76-yard touchdown in the second quarter of the loss to Cal. Darius Powe had a 40-yard reception as well, and he was just one of eight Cal players with a 10+ yard reception. Mid-way through the 4th quarter against NIU, Huskies' wide receiver Da'Ron Brown caught a 59-yard touchdown to push their lead to 16-7. Big plays continue to kill Northwestern while they produce none of their own. It starts with the secondary, which needs to vastly improve on defending intermediate passes and preventing huge plays.
3. Win convincingly
Big Ten teams don't schedule FCS opponents to eek out victories. The Leathernecks competed with Wisconsin two weeks ago, trailing just 9-3 at half, but the Badgers pulled away in the end for a 37-3 victory. The demeanor around Northwestern football is extremely low. Pat Fitzgerald knows it. The players know it. The fans know it. This season isn't turning around with a one-score victory. Last season NU entered the conference season following a narrow win over Maine, and we all remember what transpired in the remainder of the season. The 'Cats can avoid history repeating itself by going into Big Ten play on a blowout victory against Western Illinois.