Here Northwestern sits at 6-2 heading into its bye week. The Wildcats certainly aren't as good as the 5-0 team that came out of the gates, but after a two-game skid that seemingly sucked the life out of the team and its fans, Pat Fitzgerald's bunch was able to right the ship against Nebraska, earning an impressive victory in Lincoln.
At this point in the season, just about every fan would take 6-2. Sure, back-to-back blowouts on national television were no fun, and no, Northwestern isn't going to win the Big Ten, or even the Big Ten West for that matter. But with a young nucleus of players at key positions and a shot at double-digits wins, the next four weeks are crucial -- not only for the development of the underclassmen, but for the trajectory of the program.
So here's what Northwestern has to do during its bye week, a week seemingly coming at a very good time.
1. Get healthy
At this point in the season, everyone has bumps and bruises. Northwestern is no exception. Matthew Harris' absence -- coupled with the injury to Kyle Queiro (who still isn't expected back in the regular season) -- has been noticeable to say the least, and guys like Keith Watkins and Marcus McShepard are more suited for playing inside as nickelbacks, it seems.
Outside of that, the Wildcats would love to get C.J. Robbins back in the middle of the defensive line and perhaps Adam DePietro on the offensive line, where players are still rotating fairly often.
Other than that, Northwestern is somewhat healthy. Again, though, there's no way a week to heal up doesn't help the players' minds and bodies.
2. Remember Justin Jackson is on this team
The following scenario may or may not have occurred when the team reconvened on Monday:
Justin Jackson: "Hey Coach McCall."
Mick McCall: "Oh hey Justin, haven't seen you much in the past few weeks. What's up?"
Jackson: "Uh... That's what I wanted to talk to you about..."
Regardless of the conversation's veracity, Justin Jackson needs to start getting the ball more. He's averaging 12 carries per game the past two weeks, way down from the 27.6 per game he received in the first five weeks. Even last week, with the running game struggling to get going against a pretty good Cornhusker front seven, Jackson made his presence felt, catching two passes for 55 yards. He's a dynamic player who needs the ball in his hands. The rest of the season, he'll face a Penn State defense that's nothing special against the run (38th in run defense S&P+), Purdue (106), Wisconsin (54) and Illinois (37), all of which are worse against the run than four of Northwestern's first seven opponents (Stanford, Duke, Michigan, Iowa). So get him the ball. Somehow. It goes both ways, though, and Jackson needs better blocking from his line for McCall to stay with him deep into games, when he was most effective early in the season.
3. Keep getting Clayton Thorson on the move
Did you watch last week's game against Nebraska? If not, first watch the highlights. You'll see that Clayton Thorson has serious wheels -- wheels that can keep his team afloat when he's struggling to pass the ball and the running backs are not doing well. His legs are a weapon regardless of the circumstances. McCall can be largely responsible for incorporating this within his play calling. When the defense is in man, he should get his redshirt freshman on the move, because defenders will be locked on to their man and not looking at the quarterback.
4. Get those JUGS Machines rolling
With two weeks until the next game, Northwestern's wide receivers should do little this week other than just practicing catching the ball over and over. After seeing just a few drops in the first five weeks, they've piled up in the past three. Clayton Thorson's accuracy numbers aren't great -- in fact they're very bad (107th in FBS) -- and that's been, at least in part, thanks to his wide receivers not being able to catch a cold over the past few contests.
5. Get back to third-down dominance on defense
Northwestern was really successful in the first portion of the season because it was able to stop opponents and get them behind the chains, forcing long third downs. Now, with Matthew Harris out, quarterbacks have been successful against the Wildcats on third downs. If you can't get off the field on third down, it'll be a long and tiring day for your defenders. Through the first five weeks, Northwestern allowed five drives of 10+ plays. In the past three weeks, they've allowed seven such drives. If Northwestern's defense can get back to locking up opposing offenses on third downs, it can get back to its elite status.