Simply put, Northwestern was NOT the better team Saturday at Ryan Field. Cal showed great improvement from their abysmal previous year. In the 1st quarter Cal out-coached and outplayed NU in nearly every facet of the game. Yet fast forward to the 4th quarter, NU still had a chance to win that game. That says a lot about the guys on the team.
In all reality, NU was a handful of dropped passes/missed throws and two defensive mistakes away from winning this game (VanHoose and Henry both bit heavily on two separate TD passes). These are all things that you should be happy are happening early, because they are all correctable. I fully expect this team to rebound and put it all together for next Saturday.
In the meantime, let us look back and see how my 10 things NU fans need to see to be optimistic turned out:
1. Offensive Line
In terms of pass protection I was actually very satisfied with the OL this past Saturday. While I don't think Cal is by any means going to be the best pass rushing team we will face, Saturday certainly gave us reason to think it'll be different than last year. I saw most of the pressure being on the QB holding onto the ball too long or a RB not picking up the pressure like the last sack.
The only area of concern I had with this OL is being able to line up in a heavy formation and run the ball behind the OL. They simply couldn't move bodies well enough to get the short yardage first down. If they simply can not do it, then our offensive scheme needs to change in those situations.
2. Passing Schemes
Overall, I was surprised to see how many downfield passes NU attempted. I thought overall there were open receivers, but too often those open receivers had balls thrown behind them or over their heads, or they were simply dropped.
All together I'd grade our offensive gameplan at a B. I think if Trevor had been more accurate on some passes, and we had some better hands at WR it'd be a B+. Im still not sold on our offensive gameplan and play calling in certain situations. We were never able to get a consistent enough running game to see anything I wanted to see in terms of 2nd-and-medium play action passes, but I was excited to see McCall pull a play out of his bag of tricks. But it seems like we've been waiting for that situation for 9 games now. Too many times it seemed like the game situation dictated our play calling and decision making. I don't think we'd have seen as many chances taken if we hadn't been put in a hole early.
3. Big Play RB
It's painfully obvious that we didn't come out of camp with a clear starter at the RB position and that is disheartening. While Jackson and Vault showed some things to be excited about, they aren't quite there yet, and it's unfair to expect them to be that guy right now. Maybe one or both will develop into a big play threat, but I think our OL has to do a better job of clearing some lanes for them to get there. Too many times it seemed like our RBs were running/dodging a puddle at the line of scrimmage.
The best thing that both Jackson and Vault showed is that they have the ability to play with the big boys. Jackson was able to shake off some tacklers and Vault showed he has the ability out of the backfield to get some mismatches on defenders in the passing game (nearly had a great catch early in the fourth quarter). There's absolutely no reason to be looking down in this department.
4. Punt Return
One of the most frustrating areas from last year looks like it will carry over into this season. Waiving off the return team blockers instead of making a play isn't good enough. A play was needed Saturday, and if we don't have someone we can trust back there then why bother? Rushing 9 guys with no returner isn't the answer, as I've seen some refer to online. A punter only needs to one-step kick and the ball goes more than 40 yards on a roll.
These decisions come from above. I imagine a lot of guys would love to field a punt off a bounce, but they don't due to fear of losing that return job. Something needs to change, I dont have any answers for you. If im an opposing coach, Im telling my punter to make sure it hits the ground, they wont field it.
5. DL Pass Pressure
This is another position that I still do not think we had clear starters at coming out of fall camp. This is somewhat excusable due to the McEvilly injury, but it needs to get figured out before B1G play.
I can give the staff and DL a pass here. There was only one play on which we got hurt with a three-man front, and it was a very painful 3rd-down conversion after Goff dodged 2-3 defenders. I'm sure the gameplan got thrown out the window when their other QB came in. Everyone looked confused. I sure as hell didn't expect that, that's sometimes what happens in opening games. The 1st half game plan was clearly set up for Goff passing 60+ times. The second half looked 100x better and thats due to some adjustments at half-time. Some of these adjustments should have been made earlier than halftime, but I digress.
6. Collin Ellis
In some ways, Ellis is still periodically playing like an OLB and that's okay. There were a handful of times he should have filled a gap but missed a read, but overall he was influential in creating and making plays. The gameplan changed on him a bit and that can be difficult to adjust to in your first game at MLB. You have to come off the field, communicate with the defensive coordinator and booth about what you're seeing, and find out ways to adjust. During the 1st quarter that seemed difficult and nearly impossible to do with the offense sputtering, and thus keeping the defense on the field. I feel like next week will be a much better barometer for Ellis' play.
Im not quite as worried about our kicker than I am about our punting. 30.6 Yards with a 27 yard net gets you last in the FBS, and maybe even FCS. This should be of major concern, and maybe even should be very scary for all concerned. If Fitz et. al. want to win the field position, turnover, and time of possession battles, we need to recruit specialists. Walk-ons simply have not cut it for us. Maybe Niswander comes back from injury and helps in punting/kicking -- we will certainly need it.
8. Screen Recognition
I said that "we only see 1 or 2 screen passes after blowing up the first 1-2" and that's exactly what happened. We saw a handful of screens in the first half and all were blown up at the point of attack by CBs or LBs. I was very satisfied to see that, if/when this continues it takes options away from teams down the road.
9. Kyle Prater
I won't harp on this too much. He wasn't targeted but twice, neither of which were downfield. Not to say we shouldn't be hopeful about him, but he still isn't being played to his abilities, plain and simple. Siemian needs to know where he is on 3rd down when he is getting pressured and just to throw it up when we can only manage 27-yard punts.
10. Trevor Siemian
Not his best game and he knows it. His receivers didn't help him at times, and his errant throws didn't help him either. He doesn't look comfortable yet and doesn't seem to be on time with his receivers, very out of sync. He seemed to perform better in high tempo situations last year, perhaps a faster pace would help. We did see he was able to pick up some first downs (and touchdowns) with his feet. It was an obvious off game. He got put in a hole early, and likely would have dug us out of it had a few passes been more on target and a few not dropped. I feel confident in saying this will be one of his worst performances of the year, and that fans should be excited about that.
Some areas that concern me:
It did not seem as though a lot of positions were decided upon during or by the end of fall camp. In some ways that's okay, and in others it's not. From a lot of accounts, Kenosha was a cake walk, a country club, drinking lemonade on the sidelines. I was not there, nor have been for the past 3 years, but can attest that Fitz has been dialing it down a bit every year so it doesn't surprise me that things have changed. In some ways making camp less physically exhausting can be good but I think Saturday showed how it can be detrimental as well. Accounts have said a lot of guys were held out from time to time. Had these guys been practicing, could our offensive cohesion have been better? Could they have gelled better? Could guys have made better tackles on defense? Could the defense communicate with the staff before halftime? These are all viable questions to ask and wonder about after the performance we saw Saturday.
Thankfully the Cats got much much better in those areas as the game went on. So I don't think we'll see what happened in the first 30-40 minutes happen much from here on out. It was certainly a tough loss, but nothing they can't recover from.
Short yardage/4th down
Our short yardage running game is not going to work very well this year. A PAC-12 Cal team loaded the box and out-manned us, plain and simple, and it'll be worse against Big Ten teams. It's painfully obvious what we are doing when we bring in 22 or 23 personnel group (2 RBS and 3 TEs). I can not remember a time when we were overly effective in those groups in the first place. I feel like there are more creative ways to get 1-3 yards. Why not bring in a 23 personnel and go 4-5 wide? Most Defenses bring in a Goal Line personnel against 23 on short yardage situations, so this would give us a lot of mismatches on the perimeter. If we have that many athletic superbacks, lets use that to our advantage.
One of the more critical plays that I didn't care for at all was the 4th-and-3 in the 4th quarter. I liked the idea, in theory -- spreading the defense with a play action to get the QB rolling outside the pocket likely with a run/pass option. The only problem with the play was that it was called to roll against Siemian's throwing arm. Its a great 4th-down call if NU was on the left hash and rolled right. But, like, hell, I'm rolling my QB against his throwing arm on a critical down especially when he's been off. It's just small things like this that get to me. It doesn't put Siemian in his best position to make a play on a very critical down.
Offensive Tempo/Special Teams
Go back in time to the 4th quarter of the 2010 Iowa game. I remember Iowa's All-Big Ten defensive lineman on the sidelines due to our tempo, our fast pace. Dan Persa crafting up long drives and running a hurry up offense with sidelines going crazy with calls, and announcers in the press box making fun of our play call signs. Where did this vanish to? Northwestern used to create its own advantages.
Now roll back to 2008-2009. Say what you will about Stefan Demos' ill-timed kicks/punts (few remember a lot of game-winners he kicked for us) but we used to use our shortcomings on the punt team to our advantage. We used it to attack the blockers on our gunners in hopes of it'd hit them and be a live ball. It happened at least 2 times at Purdue, once in the Outback Bowl, as well as a bunch of other times where we forcefully made plays punting the ball. Where did this vanish to? Northwestern used to create its own advantages.
Don't count this team out for a second. I think things finally got ironed out and in the end, a bit more polished passing and catching the ball and one less mistake in the secondary and this ball game is completely the other way around. NU was playing good football in the 2nd half and I wouldnt be surprised to see Cal pull off some quality wins this year as they are vastly improved. Most improvements happen from week 1 to 2. Lets hope we see that against NIU.
Lastly, Northwestern used to create its own advantages. Where did this go? This is what I'm sure made NU football exciting for fans, and it is also what won us a lot of games. My biggest question to you fans out there is:
Has this program gotten to the point where they think they are too good to do that?