It wasn't pretty, but Northwestern got the job done on Saturday, defeating Western Illinois 24-7. While the defense held their own, the offense struggled to replicate their first drive, which went 70 yards and resulted in a touchdown. A look at the stats explains why Northwestern couldn't pull away earlier against WIU.
Easily the most glaring part of the game Saturday was third downs. After going 14-23 on third downs against Northern Illinois, Northwestern converted just 3 of 14 third downs against WIU. Trevor Siemian checked down over and over again to routes short of the sticks. Often, he had receivers open downfield too. Northwestern was playing like they were content with their one-score, and that strategy has definitely failed them before. While Siemian should try to limit turnovers, the offense simply needs to take more shots and keep drives moving.
It's painfully obvious that Northwestern only scored three touchdowns against Western Illinois, but this is actually about the passing game again. NU only completed three passes that went for more than 10 yards. The Leathernecks, on the other hand, had four players who had a catch of 20+ yards. Northwestern has a handful of capable receivers, several of whom have the size to go up and get the ball. Siemian should be going deep more often, and perhaps then Kyle Prater and Cameron Dickerson can be used to their full potential.
I don't want to dwell on the offense too much, but this is the stat everyone was pointing to Saturday. Western Illinois out-gained Northwestern 376-283. It was partly a result of field position because NU's special teams was so good, but Western Illinois simply played better offensively than Northwestern did. They passed the ball fairly well and got some big plays. If not for Northwestern's punt unit and the turnover margin, this is a whole different ball game.
Chris Gradone was the MVP on Saturday, no doubt in my mind. Six of his seven punts were downed inside the 20, and his one other punt would've been too if not for a missed tackle. Gradone averaged 44.1 yards per punt, a huge increase from his 30.6 average in week one, and he had a long of 55. His play earned him Big Ten special teams player of the week. The entire punt coverage unit was spectacular. Again, the only negative here is how often Gradone was on the field. His seven punts totaled 309 yards, which is more yards than the entire Northwestern offense produced Saturday.
Every time Ifeadi Odenigbo tackled somebody on Saturday, he forced a fumble. He had three tackles, three forced fumbles, two sacks, a QB hurry and a fumble recovery. Obviously, Northwestern has something very special in this young man. He is still rotating in-and-out at defensive end with Deonte Gibson and Max Chapman, but with the way he's playing, Odenigbo should become much more than a 3rd-down specialist.