After being criticized for their non-conference performance, Northwestern's offense finally showed signs of life in their convincing 27-0 win over Minnesota on Saturday. The offense turned in a solid all-around performance and offered many positive takeaways as the Wildcats head into a crucial stretch of games.
What Went Right?
1. Solid offensive line play. Much of the success on the offensive side of the ball can be credited to some unexpectedly decent play by the offensive line. The line was able to open up plenty of holes for the running backs and gave Clayton Thorson plenty of time to throw in the pocket.
"I think the group is tired of hearing people talk negative about them... they wanted to do something about it," head coach Pat Fitzgerald said about the o-line after the game.
2. Longer drives. Northwestern ended up dominating the time of possession Saturday, controlling the ball for 34:02. On the Wildcats' first drive of the game, they went 76 yards in 14 plays, ultimately finishing with a 25-yard field goal to put them up 3-0. Minnesota's offense didn't touch the ball until there was 6:05 left in the third quarter thanks to a 19-play, 69-yard drive that ended with a 23-yard field goal. The long drives took a toll on the Golden Gophers defense and it really showed in the second half as the Wildcats were able to open up their lead.
3. Running Game Remains Strong. Justin Jackson turned in yet another 100-yard performance on the ground, his fourth this season, while also receiving a season-low 20 carries. Jackson finished the day with 120 yards on the ground, while Solomon Vault added 28 yards on eight carries. Jackson averaged six yards per carry, which is something that Fitzgerald believes will be key to the offense in the future.
Northwestern is good
Northwestern is good
"If we can get five or six a pop running the ball, that's pretty good football," Fitzgerald said. "It might be a little circa 1990 but it's still good football. We've got to have pretty good balance and it looks like we did."
4. Thorson looks to be settling in. You rarely see a freshman quarterback look as poised in the pocket as Thorson was Saturday. In several key third downs throughout the game, Thorson was able to stay in the pocket and find his receivers to extend the drive.
"I felt good, felt comfortable," Thorson said after the game. "I think we did a good job as an offense just executing drive in and drive out and I think that's why we won the football game."
Furthermore, Thorson's accuracy is continuing to improve (he went 14-for-19 with no interceptions) and he connected with senior Christian Jones three times today, twice on third down. Thorson acknowledged the role that Jones role has played in his development after the game.
"He's been very helpful," Thorson said. "Mentally he's been helpful, but also throwing to a guy like that is awesome, he's one of the best receivers to play here."
Final Takeaway: While not perfect, Northwestern's offense showed that they're improving in every aspect. The coaching staff is starting to show more confidence in the offense's overall ability -- as shown by the decision to try to get the ball back at the end of the half as well as the decision in the third quarter to go for it on fourth-and-seven from the Minnesota 29-yard line. Two weeks ago, after the win against Duke, many believed this Northwestern offense had a long way to go if the team expected to be a relevant contender in the Big Ten. Saturday's solid performance was definitely a step in the right direction.
By The Numbers:
312: Total yards of offense
4.46: Average yards per play
51: Rushing attempts for NU
184: Rushing yards for NU
6.0: Average yards per carry for Justin Jackson
128: Passing yards for NU
9.1: Average yards per pass for NU
34:02: Time of possession for NU
0: Turnovers for NU