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 best performance of the season in a 27-0 victory over the Golden Gophers of Minnesota, there aren't many poor grades:
Clayton Thorson: B+
As Pat Fitzgerald said postgame, "Zero turnovers, baby!" But Thorson's grade is about more than just his ball security. He finally looked quick and comfortable recognizing and reacting to what Minnesota threw at him, and put a few third down (and fourth down) balls on the money. He was also effective with his legs, especially in the red zone, which is huge for a team that has struggled near the goal line. He still has his flaws, and it's tough to give a QB who only threw for 128 yards an A. But there was definite progress Saturday.
Justin Jackson: A
Jackson was awesome, as per usual. And unlike some other weeks, his stats reflected that. His 6.0 yards per carry was his best mark of the season thus far, and he made a few of those awe-inspiring cuts that define who he is as a back. It's also really nice to see him with only 20 carries, rather than 30-plus.
Miles Shuler: A-
Shuler did not have a catch. But he changed the game on special teams. Heck, he effectively won the game. After his punt return, and the ensuing touchdown, it was pretty tough to see the Gophers gnawing their way back into the contest.
Offensive Line: B+
Remember, this is solely based on Saturday's performance; it isn't relative to previous displays. That's why this grade isn't an A. But with that being said, it's impossible to not mention that this unit won the battle in the trenches all while missing its best player, and after struggling even with that player in the lineup through four games. The big fellas up front didn't dominate Saturday, especially early on, but they gave Thorson a clean pocket more often than not. And whereas earlier in the season, Justin Jackson's talent was used to correct the line's mistakes and turn poorly-blocked plays into positive yards, Saturday it was used to turn well-blocked plays into chunks of yardage.
Dean Lowry: A
He's a freakin' monster. I challenge you to name me a Big Ten defensive lineman who's been more impressive through five games.
Northwestern is good
Northwestern is good
Defensive Tackles: A
Immense. That's the one word that comes to mind to describe C.J. Robbins, Tyler Lancaster and company. What a performance from a unit that has already far exceeded preseason expectations. Lancaster in particular has been a pleasant surprise, and is only a sophomore.
Nick VanHoose is quietly putting together his best season yet, and arguably as good a season as any Northwestern cornerback has put together in a while. He has excelled in press coverage, something he was not tasked with much last season, and it opens up seemingly endless possibilities for coordinator Mike Hanwitz and the rest of the defense. And oh yeah, Matt Harris is really good too, and did this:
The team's two leading tacklers on the day were Godwin Igwebuike (career high 9 tackles) and Traveon Henry. Generally, it's not a good thing to have the two players farthest from the line of scrimmage atop the defensive box score. But that's not the case here. Both Henry and Igwebuike made plays at and near the line of scrimmage, and more importantly held Minnesota without a completion longer than 11 yards. That's astounding.
Steven Reese: A++
Mick McCall: A-
Yes, you read that right. Northwestern's offensive success wasn't all Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson or the offensive line. McCall called his best game yet this season from up in the booth. He picked his spots to open up the offense with Thorson, while also getting him in a rhythm with short timing throws. As noted in the rapid reaction, he even threw a new wrinkle at Minnesota which aided the running game:
With the superback group depleted by injuries to Jayme Taylor (out for the year) and Garrett Dickerson, Northwestern used a decent amount of a new package on running downs. The Wildcats would bring Connor Mahoney in as a sixth offensive lineman and line him up to the left side of left tackle Blake Hance. On occasion, Dan Vitale would also line up to the left of Mahoney. NU had moderate success running behind the overloaded line.
And in general, he kept a pretty good Minnesota defense off balance. Sure, the execution was better, meaning the players made McCall look good. But he helped them have success too.