A ton of things had to go wrong for Northwestern to fall behind 24-7 midway through the second quarter to a team that won exactly one game last year, and a ton of things did indeed go horribly wrong for the 'Cats last Saturday. NU looked comically unprepared for Cal's dual-QB offense. The secondary, the unit the coaching staff couldn't stop raving about throughout camp, looked porous and uninterested (or confused). And quarterback Trevor Siemian, eager to impress now that the team is undoubtedly his, was inaccurate and indecisive.
But of all of Saturday's shortcomings (and there were more than a few), the most troublesome was the sub-par play of the receiving corps. Sure, they were able to create enough separation, and yes, Siemian didn't help matters, but there were still far too many drops for anyone's liking. When Christian Jones went down, we reminded everybody not to freak out because of how deep Northwestern is at the receiver position. But with each additional drop, Jones' absence became that much more apparent.
Tony Jones is expected to be the squad's top receiving option sans Christian, and he actually played well. Jones caught 7 balls for 64 yards and displayed a sure set of hands. The same can't be said for the rest of NU's receivers.
Cameron Dickerson, who I predicted would be a key contributor this season, provided Northwestern's only big play of the day, a 54-yard score in the second quarter to pull the 'Cats within 10, but he didn't look comfortable at all out there. Of all the receivers, Dickerson was the worst culprit when it comes to drops, often looking for a safety before the ball even reached his hands. He was visibly frustrated after an untimely drop in the fourth quarter that stunted Northwestern's comeback, and rightfully so — as a wide receiver, your job is to catch the football. If you can't catch the football, you probably won't see the field at wide receiver for much longer.
Dan Vitale racked up 5 catches for 38 yards, but those came on designed screen-type plays in the flat. Vitale is versatile, sure, but it's a stretch to consider him a serious downfield pass-catching threat. The vast majority of his production this season will come from similar plays to those we saw on Saturday. While it's nice to have that weapon out of the backfield, you can't expect Vitale to replace the receiving corps on his own.
Miles Shuler is undersized at 5-10, but he was a four-star recruit in high school and the 16th best receiving prospect in his class. That's legit high-end Division 1 talent, but Shuler's production at Rutgers didn't match his pre-college hype. He was banged up all day Saturday and only managed to catch two balls for 27 yards. Northwestern needs all the help they can get on offense, as was abundantly clear against Cal, so everyone's hopes are that Shuler finally lives up to his potential and becomes a reliable option for Trevor Siemian.
Like Dickerson, Kyle Prater possesses the ideal body to be a downfield threat. Prater is a maddening player to watch, a one-time five star recruit who committed to play football at USC. Prater disappointed in California, and he's disappointed in Evanston, showing only flashes — mostly just in practice — of the acumen that had college coaches vying for his signature. He's so frustrating because at times, he makes it look so damn easy: He's a legit 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and can make a ten yard out pattern look automatic. But for whatever reason, Prater has failed to be anything resembling a consistent contributor, and it's time for Wildcat fans to stop hoping — wishing — that someday Prater will be a top receiver for this team. He doesn't have the speed to be a go-to guy, and the Wildcats haven't been comfortable going to him in the endzone.
NU is going to rely more on the passing game this year without Kain Colter and Venric Mark. It appears Tony Jones has carved out a niche as Siemian's favorite target, but one of either Dickerson, Shuler, or Prater is going to have to seriously step up if this offense is to be at all dangerous. Drops kill drives, and this team tends to march down the field methodically rather than gain yards in bunches. A performance from the receiving corps like the one it put forth on Saturday can't happen if the 'Cats want to win Big Ten football games.