Northwestern did not play 60 minutes of its best football last Saturday, and that showed in the scoreboard and in the W-L column. We don't need another article for that, but with a few things polished off, can they come out on the other side of the column this weekend?
I certainly think they can and will. While NIU will be a very formidable opponent, NU is nowhere near "sleeping on them" through a week of preparation. They can't afford to be. No one has to regurgitate that NIU is a solid solid football program. My only concern is that its possible this game may wind up just like another season opener. In all reality, we still don't know much about NIU. We know they can run for a lot of yards on FCS teams, and that they had a lot of guys toting the rock. We know who the first QB taking snaps will be, but it ends there. I think we know about as much about NIU as we did about Cal. Hopefully we can make the adjustments quicker than this past weekend if any similar situations arise.
While I may be highlighting a lot of the negatives, it is only to look and hope for improvement to turn into a positive. After all, with every first game there are several areas to improve upon. Here they are:
1. Play Action Pass
NIU ran the ball 70+ times last Saturday. While I don't expect them to do that, this is a sure sign they will at least try to set up a balanced offense and run the ball to set up play action passes. NIU just named their starter this week. They'll want to give him easy passes with minimal reads especially while facing a veteran secondary. With NU getting beat twice on plays that resulted in touchdowns off of play fakes, I expect them to test the secondary early. VanHoose bit on a run fake near the goal line and Henry beat biting on a bubble screen and vacated his deep third. Easy mistakes to correct, especially with it being the first game of the year, and even as a veteran, the second game has a different feel to it.
Highlighting play action pass doesn't mean I'm trying to pick on the secondary. Linebackers need to not over read on the run with play action pass as well. There were a handful of times that Ellis seemed to get out of position from running too hard with the run fake, and the QB was reading his reaction to throw in behind him. If the DBs can not bite the cheese, LBs not over run and get out of position, and DL can transition to a pass rush, we'll be "A-Okay" and likely able to set up some third downs in our favor to set up a pass rush.
2. Short Yardage Situations
Offensively, what will we see? Thats the biggest question. I don't think many fans were upset when, where or why we went for it on fourth down, but were how upset with how we did it. This goes for third and short situations, as well. We had little to no success in our 22 & 23 personal situations, plain and simple. (That's two running backs and two tight ends, and two running backs and three tight ends). Insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting the different results — this ironically is a saying used often by the coaches.
These situations had a major role in our loss last weekend. What will we do to adjust in these situations? Keep an eye out, because if we see some changes I think we have reason to believe that things are moving in the right direction.
3. Punt/Punt Return
At PR, will we have an air traffic controller or a playmaker? Vegas has this as a one-possession game, and in one-possession games, field position is the most critical battle to win. And the return game is the easiest place to make a difference. Will we take some chances to make some plays and trust our defense if it fails, or put the offense an extra 10 yards back on a bounce? I think the latter, but always hope for the former. Who knows, maybe we go after a punter even when the situation doesn't mandate it.
At punter, does Gardone show some improvement booting the pigskin? This unit is in dire need of a guy with a boot, a change in scheme, or change in decision making within the game plan. If Gardone is able to boot it 35+ yards, then by all means, let him rip it. If he can't, is he able to rugby punt? If he can't rugby, can we have open tryouts at punter? If no one else can, should we try being the first FBS team to try out the "no-punt" game plan like Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas? It certainly makes sense inside the 50. Call me a maverick, a nonconformist, extremist.... but the punt team has been trending downward since Stefan Demos. It's unfair for me to be singling out Gradone, since we don't know if Niswander can take over his duties, and he may be the best we got. I'm sure as hell he is doing the best he can. I hope he boots it 40+ with 37 net, but only time will tell, and I don't think there's a legal drug for that.
While a lot of our gameplan wouldn't be any where near as critiqued after a loss with so many dropped passes and misfires, questions still remain about our offensive gameplan. Will we see players playing the gameplan, or the gameplan playing for the players? Will we see players put into position to play to their tangible abilities? Will Prater, get targeted downfield with one-on-one coverage? Vitale in space? Spread formations for spread players and spread offensive lines on critical downs? What will our tempo be for most of the game? These are all things brought up by myself and others over the past week, as well as last season. After all, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, right?
I recall seeing these issues and questions last year through the first four games and expecting to see a complete 180 come Ohio State, which happened. But we won the first four games. After we lost to Ohio State, the gameplan reverted right back and these same questions began to arise. We need that gameplan for Ohio State every week, not four gameplans to build up to Ohio State. Should we not live every week like it's Shark Week?
5. Pass Game
We've already touched on the gameplan part of the passing game. How does Trevor come back after a poor game? He's got to come back on target to give the Wildcat faithful a chance for something to hope for this season. A few times, he threw off his back foot. We've got to see him improve throwing on the run and watching his time holding onto the football. The negative plays he had last week put him and the offense in poor situations on third down. A lot of these things should shake off after the first week, and I know he's got it in him to be a great QB. He just needs to polish off a handful of things.
While Trevor had his share of poor passes, he's got to get some more help from the guys on the other end of the pass. Did we fix our case of the drops? If we haven't who's going to step up and make a play. Might we see Stephen Buckley back in the game, giving us the ability and depth to use some RBs in the slot position?
Overall, I think all things should look up in this department.
Items 1, 2 and 5 are critical areas to this game specifically. I think they will be necessary for NU to win this coming Saturday. 3 & 4 are a bit more broad, and while they will have an impact on the game, they will be a better barometer of how high our expectations can or should be for the remainder of the season.
I don't think there is a need for NU to radically be different on offense, find a great punter, and not be conservative in the return game in order for them to get the win on Saturday. They did not NEED it last weekend: They just needed items 1 and 5 to be better and the outcome would have been a "W". So in the end, the biggest question remains: Will this team just do what it needs to win, or will it do everything to prove it is a good team and potential contender in the Big Ten West?