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Nate Williams: Analyzing non-conference play, Northwestern's 4-0 start

Former Northwestern linebacker Nate Williams is back!

Can Throson improve enough to keep the Cats in contention for the B1G West?
Can Throson improve enough to keep the Cats in contention for the B1G West?
Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Williams is a former Northwestern linebacker, a former leadership council member, and an avid follower of Wildcat football ever since his playing days ended. In 2013, Williams began providing analysis of NU football to give us and our readers a perspective that nobody else on our current staff can provide.

After a brief spell on the sidelines, Williams makes his 2015 season debut with his analysis of Northwestern's 4-0 start.


Before we jump in, a rough outline: I'll start with a quick recap of each game, then go to some overall insight and analysis, and finally, a position group-by-position group breakdown. (Oh, and maybe I'll throw in some big picture college football takes just to piss of my SEC friends here in New Orleans.)

Game-by-game recap

• Stanford — Northwestern could have lost. Stanford QB Kevin Hogan played what will likely be the worst game of his season, and wasn't helped by the players around him either. But nonetheless, a solid win, and a great one for the program.
• Eastern Illinois — Taking care of business.
• Duke — This was a phenomenal team win on the road. Northwestern played more than 60 players, and won the game despite an anemic offensive performance. Hopefully the Ball State game was just a sign of guys being a little tired from their performances at Duke.
• Ball State — This was a "they're human" game. Just when the defense started to seem impenetrable, they regressed across the board. Ball State wide receiver Jordan Williams made the big catches that Stanford dropped. If NU faces another talented, big body WR like Jordan Williams, then NU has to win those 50/50 balls. The defense was also put in a tough spot by some poor, poor turnovers. And seeing teammates getting decimated by injuries can devastate team morale. So this was a big win to come away with against a Ball State team that is likely better than we think.

Overall Thoughts

I think for once, the team and fans realized where the Wildcats can be if the they play down to their worst abilities (on offense, the first halves against Ball State and Duke, on defense, the entire Ball State game) as well as play up to their best (on offense, the third quarter against Ball State, on defense, the entire game against Duke). The biggest thing is that they came away with scrappy wins.

I think the coaching staff likely opened up the playbook a little more than they wanted and took some greater downfield risks against Ball State while for the most part staying very vanilla and conservative the rest of the games. The offense, for whatever reason, feels the need to hide most everything from opponents. However, they have impressed me with a bit more downfield passing and a few trick-type plays that I did not expect with a freshman QB and a lot of young guys playing. The biggest possible issue, in my opinion, is that the offense is presently leaning on a lot of tendencies right now. So we will see if that was by design in the coming weeks.

Defensively, what has impressed me the most is the schemes. I think defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz has also done a great job adjusting in all but one game (Ball State). Ball State was a bit of a drop-off but it can be difficult to scheme against an inexperienced, unheard of QB. In all but the Ball State game, they've been able to get pressure on the QB, which is important. What has concerned me the most is that it appears as though the front seven didn't play their best,\ and as an overall defense, Northwestern did not tackle great. That's been the exception rather than the rule though.

Position-by-position breakdown

Clayton Thorson

First and foremost, he looks abysmal in the option game. I at first thought he was maybe being coached up to pitch quickly to protect his body, but I no longer think that's the case. The offense needs him to be a threat in the option game so until he becomes a threat with his legs and slashes some defenses, he will continue to allow opponents to stack the box.

He also has not shown the consistency to be given much respect in the passing game, which, plain and simple, makes him a liability on offense. Northwestern needs defenses to respect either his arm or legs, because without either one, Justin Jackson and company will not be as effective as they need to be. I don't mean to be hard on the kid, he's undoubtedly Northwestern's future, so fans need to learn to deal with the previously stated. Thorson still makes some freshman throws and decisions, and that's fine. I am not saying he shouldn't be in there. But he will need to continue to improve (as he should) in order for the Wildcats to win 8-plus games this regular season.

The tools are there, they just need some polishing and developing. Even in the third quarter against Ball State, where he certainly looked his best, he threw some balls that were pretty close to being intercepted, and he is flat out not reading the defense. I've seen him throw into coverage multiple times with receivers streaking down the field wide open.

The playcalling isn't exactly helping either. Thorson seems like the kind of guy that wants to grip it and rip it, and not necessarily the type of player that coaches need to get his confidence up with a few easy throws or easy quick pitch speed option plays. The ceiling is extremely high for this kid, but he needs to climb a bit higher in the short term if NU is going to have a winning conference record.

Offensive line

I've seen pretty decent improvement from a year ago. The offensive line has kept a freshman QB pretty clean so far this year. Of course, you'd like to see a little more push in the run game, but overall, the unit is progressing. Bad snaps are an issue, and health could become a concern, but I think we can be slightly optimistic about this group.

Running back

This is a stellar group — which means Justin Jackson doesn't need to be getting the exorbitant amount of carries he is. Plain and simple. Warren Long, Solomon Vault and even Auston Anderson (who we haven't seen since EIU) all provide great changes of pace and should and need to be utilized more. I would not be surprised to see some two-back sets with Big Ten play coming up.

Wide receiver/Superback

Northwestern seems to finally have a pretty healthy wide receiver unit, and their play has been pretty good relative to expectations. More effective blocking on the perimeter is imperative, as struggles in that department helped Duke stuff NU's run game outside the tackles. But most receivers have shown to pretty sure hands aside from a handful of drops.

Miles Shuler is about 50/50 so far on deep balls, which I guess is an improvement from last year, but he needs to start hauling more of those in. There has been some talk about wide receivers not getting separation, and I do not think that's fair. I think it has more to do with the QB's reads and throwing into coverage, as I've seen many open receivers on those said throws. I think this unit has the ability to take the top off of defenses, it's just a matter of the playbook opening up.

Defensive line

If the defensive linemen can bring what they brought the first three games, and put Ball State in the past, Northwestern will be in every game no matter how poor the offense plays. NU has some of the most athletic defensive ends in the country, and if the interior of the defensive line can improve, NU's chances of limiting the Big Ten pro style, run-first offenses are extremely high.

The reason for Northwestern's success on third down so far has been the defensive line. If it can suffocate opponents at the line of scrimmage on first and second down, it has the pass rushers to allow the secondary to make some great breaks on balls and wreak havoc in the defensive backfield on passing plays.


This is a great group, and it appears to have some depth, but it seems like they still have yet to solidify the third spot opposite of Smith and Walker. We'll likely continue to see a rotation there, with Jaylen Prater playing on run downs and Nate Hall on passing downs.

I thought the linebackers were a little bit lost against Ball State. It seemed that they blocked themselves a handful of times when Ball State committed to running, which is unnerving with Big Ten play coming up and run-heavy teams like Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin on the schedule. Against Ball State, the defensive line didn't help them much either, and Walker and Smith both have gotten away with quick triggering after an initial read. But it appeared Ball State had them gamed a bit and allowed them to basically block themselves by triggering into gaps that closed after the initial reads.

Look for Minnesota to be a good barometer for the rest of Big Ten play for this unit. If they can be patient after their first read and move laterally, then the sky is the limit for this group. If they start to struggle in this area though, the defense may start to cripple.


Depth, depth, depth. Northwestern has a lot of guys out there that can play ball. This past weekend was a bit of a scare, but NU has been able to play a lot of man and man-free defense, which puts a lot of stress on the secondary. The Ball State game may appear to be a scare, but if the Wildcats are blitzing that much and playing that kind of defense, those plays will happen. It's just a matter of beating opposing wide receivers on jump balls. This might be the best group depth I've ever seen play at NU. I do not see any weaknesses.

Special Teams

Very good thus far. Special teams have won and kept NU in games. The punting has been vastly improved from the last two seasons, and is one of the reasons the defense is performing a bit better. Jack Mitchell is continuing to be effective, and our coverage teams have a lot of young talent out there. Many of these players are proving they'll belong on the field on either offense or defense some day soon. This should give fans confidence not only for the future but also in the event of injuries this season.

Offensive Coaching

What we need less of: Quick pitch speed option, boundary screens, runs on first and second down, running back personnel. Boundary screens are a terrible play call by design, even if its two-on-two out there. Its a short field and the receiver is taught to run through the blocking wide receiver's outside shoulder. This leaves little room for error. Simply not an effective play design. Thorson either needs to develop some option ball skills or McCall needs to ditch the play altogether. The offenses tendencies on paper are straight up ugly (personnel is a factor here too), this will need to change to keep defenses on their feet.

What we need more of: Taking the top off the defense, downfield passing, running back screens, wide receiver blocking, and more touches for Vitale.

Defensive Coaching

What we need less of: Nothing. I love this defense and the schemes thus far. The three-man rush has been working for the most part as well.

What we need more of: Defensive line manhandling (the football kind, guys) allowing our linebackers to make quick, fast reads and reactions. We haven't seen many zone blitzes that get the secondary (especially Henry) involved in the blitz, with some DE dropping into coverage, and I would not be surprised to start seeing some of those in the coming weeks.

Pat Fitzgerald

I think these first four games may have been the best start Fitz has had from a true gameday decision making standpoint. He appears to have a great understanding of his team, and has made so far what have appeared to be the best decisions, a balance of risky and conservative. What I've liked the most is him sticking with his guns with Thorson and not allowing the threat of being pulled to be on his mind. Most young QBs get all messed up in the head when coaches have that card to pull. I look forward to seeing how it all continues.


It wouldn't surprise me if they were just being overly cautious with the recent rash of injuries that occurred this past Saturday, given the opponent and upcoming schedule. We know Kyle Quiero is out for certain, but don't be surprised if nearly everyone else, aside from maybe Geoff Mogus, plays. Godwin Igwebuike is day-to-day, and they could just be exercising caution with him. Garrett Dickerson was having his ankle worked on on the field, thankfully not the knee so we could easily see him back in the lineup depending on the severity. Ifeadi Odenigbo eventually returned to the field. Mogus took a tough one, but should be back on the field eventually, just likely not this week.


The achilles heel of Northwestern in the past seasons has been October. Sometimes it takes a bit for the guys to get in the groove of practicing, studying film, and going to class and studying. This is a younger team, but hopefully the older guys will show them the way. October also brings the "meat" of the schedule, which is a bit scary. One win would be disappointing; two would be good; three would be great; four would be... watch out world. And zero would be "Illinois dumpster fire time."

Big Ten outlook

As mentioned, October is the meat of the schedule. Say Northwestern pulls off three of four, or even four of four wins, the Wildcats would certainly hold the golden ticket to the Big Ten championship game.

Golden Ticket Outlook

Lets say NU does go undefeated, but comes up short in the conference championship, a "near perfect season." Northwestern will have an outside shot, even with the loss, of making the playoff. I think they'd get in over a one-loss SEC, Big 12, Pac 12 or ACC team. I feel that Stanford and Duke will continue to be our marquee wins, as it wouldn't surprise me to see either of them have 9-10 wins and place in the top three in their respective conferences. Northwestern would also have by then beat a likely ranked Iowa/Wisconsin, Michigan, and maybe Nebraska.

Bold Prediction

The Big Ten could have two teams in the playoff, and the SEC will miss out altogether. That's right. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. I actually tried to get a friend (SEC fan, mind you) to make this wager, and he was scared to bite. The five undefeated SEC teams will all have to play at least three of the four other undefeated teams, making it only POSSIBLE for there to be one undefeated SEC team at the end of the day, and so far every one of those five teams does not look anything like a championship caliber undefeated team, especially Ole Miss. LSU's Lenoard Fournette can't carry an LSU offense to eight more wins, as he almost couldn't against a fifth-string QB in Syracuse. Chad Kelly won't get as lucky as he's been this year, Georgia hasn't played a formidable opponent, Alabama will lose again, Texas A&M hasn't played anyone aside from Arizona State, and Florida is, well, Florida post-Urban, as usual.

The Big Ten could get two in, the winner of the conference championship game, plus a one-loss West team or one-loss Michigan State. Michigan could entirely screw this up too if they continue to improve over the season under Harbaugh. So I'm hoping for a dumpster fire after NU beats Michigan.

Unfortunately none of this matters as its not even October yet. Oh well, its fun anyways. That's what September is supposed to be all about: make irrational predictions and be overzealous on your own team and conference. At least SEC fans are finally on their heels after having their record amount of teams in the top 25.

I hope to continue writing a weekly analysis with Big Ten season fully underway. The only weeks that may come late/not at all will be Iowa and Penn State, as I'll be attending both. Look forward to hearing from all you 'Cats fans.

Go 'CATS! Beat the Goophers.