The Cats couldn't get back in the win column after a very disappointing loss to NIU. What we've been seeing of late has not been the Northwestern Wildcat football we've all become accustomed to. It was a flat out ugly game. A lot of drops, a handful of misthrows, missed blocks and protections, poor tackling late in the game, and far, far too many penalties to put a team in the position to win a close game.
Here's a recap of four of my five critical areas from last week:
1. Short Yardage Situations
I wish I had the coaches' stats to better understand how we actually performed. After watching the game again, I still can't provide you with much insight. We went for it once on 4th down and failed miserably, but that wasn't a short yardage situation. There were a handful of 3rd and short opportunities, and most of them turned out in our favor, thankfully, but we were never to get much momentum on most of those drives.
There was a drive late in the 1st quarter that we started out on our own 2 yard line, lined up in a heavy set 80% of the plays and actually moved the ball before a penalty on an illegal block messed up the mojo. Too often than not, a penalty or bad drop killed momentum. That's not Northwestern football.
2. Punt/Punt Return
Yet again, this area of the team failed us. Miserably. Gradone actually looked very good, I'm very impressed with how he was able to rebound from last week. However, the cover team failed on more than one occasion. There were 2 missed opportunities for a huge changes in field position and could have had a ball downed at the 1 yard line and another within the 5 that wound up being a touchback. Both looked like pretty routine opportunities too. Then there was the botched coverage on the last punt return that led to a big swing of momentum for NIU after their PR was able to rip off a huge gain in the 4th quarter which eventually set up a scoring drive giving NIU a 2-3 possession lead. The cover team has to be better. They show signs of a great coverage team, but too often they were found playing patty cake on the goal line with the football. Both of those situations could have easily given NU the advantage at that juncture in the game.
On punt return, we finally saw a return, and finally saw Campbell take some chances on fielding the football. That is progress, people!
Hold onto your chairs ... McCall didn't call a bad game; it was actually a rather good. Not great, but good. I still am befuddled with how our actual gameplan gets created, and that I'll touch on momentarily. This game wasn't won or lost on gameplans; it was won or loss on execution. Take away a few drops, a handful of penalties, a couple of underthrown balls and this game is a wildly different game. This loss is on the players not doing their jobs that the coaches give them.
Now with that being said, I do not think that we go into game week and look at our skill players and say "what plays can we call to make player X succeed based on their skill sets." I think this is, simply put, a forced offensive system designed for a team with different recruited skill sets. This offensive system isn't for players who make mistakes. I think our shortcomings in our offensive line run blocking were HIGHLY disguised by having Kain Colter in the backfield. It's apparent that our ineptitude running the football and run blocking this year can be attributed to a lack of a dual threat QB. The WRs and QB need to be a lot more polished for this offensive gameplan to work. This gameplan is based on possession receivers and precision QBs throwing and catching high percentage throws. Taking what the defense gives you, moving the football. I don't see possession receivers on this team, I don't see a QB with a 70%+ completion percentage. I see highly skilled guys at skill positions, gamers, big play threats.
Kyle Prater got a lot of catches and targets (9 catches and maybe 12 targets?). I'd like to see someone chart the areas he is targeted in. Do you think over the middle possession routes are his forte? Maybe we needed a guy to step up and he did, and for that I highly applaud him, but he can be played even better. The only two play calls I thought went in his favor were obviously his TD downfield, and an underthrown back shoulder pass to him downfield on the sidelines. They were line drives and toward his midsection to lower body. So even when we are making the right calls, the offense is not executing it. Those were passes Siemian made last year. To see him make that mistake twice seems to fall on the shoulders of the coaches, unless he is taught to do so, in which case I ask, why?
4. Pass Game
Trevor wasn't on again. It was a better performance than last week and he still had a handful of balls dropped on him. His one interception, his WR did not help him very much. With an underthrown ball, the receiver has to make a play coming back to the football and at the very least play defense to make sure its an incompletion, force pass interference or catch the ball. Kudos to the NIU CB for making a hell of an interception though. As I mentioned previously, going forward its obvious the entire reci and QB need to be more polished for this offensive gameplan to work. They certainly have a lot of time to get things figured out and polished up.
This was potentially the most un-Northwestern game I've seen of late. Execution was no where to be found in any facet of the game except for defense 80% of the time. Special teams let us down a handful of times even after a total improvement punting the ball. There were opportunities everywhere for some guys to make some big plays, but all were left squandered. The worst part of what I saw Saturday is a defense that lost some grit in the latter part of the game. They lost swagger. They don't appear to be in proper game shape yet, which I think may have had some reason for the sloppy play late in the 4th as well as a couple penalties. The most disappointing thing I saw Saturday was when Zach Oliver threw a touchdown pass and 2-point conversion to get the game within a score, the sideline was absolutely lifeless. That game was lost before the ensuing onside kick.
This team has about three weeks until they can prove they are a formidable opponent again. In the meantime, they have to polish up on the fundamentals: blocking, passing & catching, and tackling. It's a pretty simple formula: you block you pass and catch and tackle you win football games, and the Cats aren't doing any of that very well right now for 60 minutes.
While a win over an FCS is all but guaranteed, this is still an important game to get the fundamentals down to get a little bit of confidence back. This team needs some confidence after the past two weeks. If they can regain that, they could pull off some surprises in the B1G. This not a bad team, just a team that is in dire need of execution.