Every Sunday after a Northwestern win or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.
After NU turned in its worst performance of the season in a 38-0 romping at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines, the Wildcats continued their troubling ways yesterday afternoon in the loss to Iowa:
More on Northwestern-Iowa
More on Northwestern-Iowa
One would think Northwestern, seven days after a truly disheartening blowout loss in Ann Arbor, would come out of the gates yesterday, on Homecoming, with a little more energy and execution. While the first quarter wasn't as bad for the Wildcats as it was against Michigan, the first half -- outside of a pair of late scores aided by a C.J. Beathard interception -- was similarly poor, and the second was a disaster.
The days of Northwestern fans dreaming about a Big Ten West title are probably over, as the Wildcats are now 1-2 in conference play and need a big bounceback next weekend in Nebraska to avoid a complete collapse. Once again, conservative play-calling and poor line play on both sides of the ball did the Wildcats in, and losing a pair of fumbles and throwing an interception didn't help.
Here are our grades from Saturday's 40-10 loss:
Clayton Thorson: C-
Outside of his ill-advised interception on Northwestern's first drive of the game (which led to a Iowa field goal), Thorson didn't play that poorly of a game. He led the Wildcats down the field late in the second quarter to score a touchdown on a nice pass to Christian Jones in the end zone but, outside of that, didn't do a whole lot else. He was heavily limited by offensive coordinator Mick McCall's play calls, which consisted mainly of screen passes and the rare low-percentage shot down the field. When receivers ran slants or short curl routes, though, Thorson was able to gain actual yardage but those plays were the exceptions, not the rules.
Justin Jackson: INC
Jackson, Northwestern's top backfield option, ran for 30 yards on 10 carries, which isn't too great on a per-carry basis but garners him an incomplete due to the baffling handling of his carries by McCall. Right after Iowa kicked the field goal to go up 3-0, the running game -- and Jackson -- was relatively abandoned in favor of an offense heavily predicated on first-down throws that mostly went nowhere. For a passing-limited team like Northwestern to only give its top back 10 carries in a close (for most of three quarters) game is absurd.
Wide Receivers and Superbacks: C-
Drops and poor routes have plagued this position group all season, and today was no different. Northwestern wideouts dropped no less than four or five easily catchable passes that could have gone for first downs and more. One, a Christian Jones drop in the second quarter, was a few inches away from being picked off by an Iowa defender. Clayton Thorson certainly hasn't been helped out by his pass-catchers the last two games.
Offensive Line: D
For the second Saturday in a row, the opposing defensive line manhandled the Wildcats' front five, which has dealt with some injuries this season but allowed way too much penetration Saturday. Thorson needs to do a better job of making his reads quicker and getting the ball out sooner, but there were multiple sacks for big losses that weren't his fault. Granted, some of this pressure was due to Northwestern's non-existent running game but the line should harbor most of that responsibility.
Postgame press conference
Postgame press conference
Defensive Line: D
In the same vein, the Wildcats' defensive line that buoyed the 5-0 start just hasn't gotten the job done at all in the Michigan and Iowa games, allowing Jake Rudock last week and a hobbled C.J. Beathard this weekend to have all day to find their receivers. Beathard's jersey was clean for the entire day. Additionally, the lack of pressure generated by Dean Lowry's unit allowed Iowa's running backs to run wild. Even after starter Jordan Canzeri left in the first quarter with an undisclosed injury, sophomore backup Akrum Wadley was barely touched as he racked up 204 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries. Just a poor showing in all facets for the rapidly declining d-line.
Anthony Walker and the rest of the linebackers, when the defensive line does its job well, are then freed up to make big plays, like sack the opposing quarterback, pick off passes and force fumbles. Since the line wasn't able to get anything going, the linebackers had to focus on stopping the run at the second level instead of the first. Walker, whose name is usually mentioned over and over on a Northwestern football broadcast, didn't make himself known at all as none of his compatriots at the position.
Defensive Backs: B-
It's hard to blame a secondary when an opponent runs for almost 300 yards (and five scores) but throws for less than 200 and gives up an interception. But, missed tackles by normally reliable guys like Nick VanHoose (Matthew Harris was out with a facial injury suffered last week) let Iowa's 10-15 yard runs turn into 30-40 yard runs, which just killed the Northwestern defense. The downfield coverage of Iowa wide receivers wasn't bad, though.
Special Teams: D-
Another week, another game in which Northwestern punted the ball almost 10 times in lieu of actually sustaining good drives. None of that is Hunter Niswander's fault, but what he should be blamed for are his punts of 18, 26 and 28 yards that killed his team in the field position battle. Pat Fitzgerald doesn't have many options at the position, but now might be a time to consider them.
On the bright side, the kicking and return games were fine, so there are your biggest positives from another disappointing all-around performance.