While the result was the same as week one, Northwestern looked a lot different this Saturday. Special teams improved dramatically, particularly in the punting department. The defense showed up in the first half, instead of the second. Mick McCall's offense was simply bad throughout. To break down Northwestern's different units, let's take a look at some of the stats that stand out:
We'll start with the good. Chris Gradone averaged 42.0 yards per punt against Northern Illinois, a huge improvement on his 30.6 average from last week. Gradone even downed three punts inside the 20, and if the coverage team had kept two others from rolling into the end zone, Gradone's 31.0 net average would have seen a huge boost. The bad news is Gradone punted eight times due to the offense's woes. His 336 punting yards against NIU were more than Northwestern passed for in either of its first two games.
Another stat to note is how often the 'Cats punted from around midfield. The Northwestern offense continuously stalled near the 50, and five times Fitzgerald decided to punt when NU had the ball beyond their own 43. Most of these came on 4th-and-long, where going for it was essentially a non-option. But Fitz and McCall have been very conservative in their play-calling, which is why NU's drives have ended around midfield so often.
There is one more bright spot in Saturday's stats. NU was 14-23 on third down for a conversion rate of nearly 61 percent, a significant edge on NIU's 7-17 on third down. NU stayed away from the run on third down, usually converting through the air or even on a Siemian scramble. Siemian often connected with Cameron Dickerson and Miles Shuler on third-and-manageables, and he found Dan Vitale to convert a big 3rd-and-19 in the 4th quarter. This stat reveals some flaws too. 23 third downs is a lot. Northwestern had 3rd-and-short so often because the offense generated so few big plays.
The 'Cats averaged 1.9 yards per rush Saturday, which is bad, but not as atrocious as it looks. That number includes Trevor Siemian's negative 29 yards on nine carries. Take Siemian's numbers out and NU averaged 3.6 yards per carry on 28 rushes. Justin Jackson was the team's leading rusher with 52 yards, just over half of the team's 101 rush yards excluding Siemian.
Northwestern's longest rush Saturday was just 13 yards. Yes, 13 yards. NIU had four carries of equal or longer distance in the second half alone. NU's longest rush last week was even shorter at 11 yards. Obviously, none of NU's backs have the big-play capability of Venric Mark, but the offensive line should be creating more opportunities for big rushes. It's no surprise the 'Cats continue to go to the air when handing the ball off involves such a lack of productivity and zero big play potential.
If you'e wondering where the game was won, it was at the line of scrimmage. The Huskies sacked Trevor Siemian five times Saturday. The senior quarterback was continuously under pressure, and the 'Cats' offensive line struggled to open up holes for its running backs. Eric Olson really struggled at right tackle, and Jack Konopka drew multiple flags for holding. Paul Jorgensen wasn't much better over at left tackle, and Geoff Mogus had a particularly bad series in the 4th quarter, in which he allowed a sack and got a holding penalty on back-to-back plays. The veteran group didn't look like they had improved one bit on their poor 2013 season.
Northwestern had nine penalties against them for a total of 93 yards. This is a week removed from a game in which NU only had one penalty called against them, and it was declined. The penalties this week came at very crucial moments too.
Near the end of the 2nd quarter, Trevor Siemian rushed for 11 yards to the NIU 29 on a 1st-and-10, but a hold on Jack Konopka brought the 'Cats back to midfield, and they would punt just before half. NIU was going to have a 3rd-and-8 in the early third quarter, but a Dean Lowry face mask penalty moved the Huskies into field goal position, where NIU would put the first points on the board.
Later, personal fouls against Matthew Harris and C.J. Robbins helped NIU get into the end zone on two separate drives in the final 20 minutes. Robbins was ejected for throwing a punch, just one of NU's four personal fouls. Between the sloppiness of play, the stupid penalties and a Wildcat walking off to the locker room, it simply did not look like Northwestern football.