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A tale of two halves: Northwestern’s offense goes dormant after strong start

The Wildcats came out of the gate hot, but were stifled in the second half.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Appreciation is a very relative concept.

Five weeks ago, Northwestern got its first victory of the season against Duke, scoring 24 points and gaining 406 total yards.

On Saturday, Northwestern got its fourth victory of the season against Indiana, scoring 24 points and gaining 408 total yards.

After Duke, the offensive output was remembered as one of the best in recent memory, as Thorson hit multiple receivers for deep touchdowns. Despite some inefficiency, the Wildcats were finally hinting at being a dual-threat offense. After Indiana, it’s still a positive offensive showing, except this time with a bit of staleness in the air.

It’s all about a difference in perspective.

Against Indiana, Northwestern rocketed out of the gate, scoring two touchdowns on the first two possessions. Clayton Thorson completed a 17 yard pass to Solomon Vault and a 34 yard pass to Austin Carr as part of a red-hot start. Then on the first play of the second quarter scored its third TD of the game on a 32 yard pass to Macan Wilson.

In 15 short minutes, Northwestern led by 21 and the offense appeared to be picking up right where it left off in East Lansing. But in the next 45 minutes of game time, the Wildcats would only score three points and be forced to hang on for dear life against the Hoosiers.

“I thought we started the game the right way,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “But obviously lost momentum in the second time and had to respond a bunch of times.”

The first quarter (and change) was one of the best starts, offensively, Northwestern has had in a long time. Scoring three touchdowns on four possessions is something we’ve seen this offense do the past two games, but rarely have the Wildcats done it to start the game.

“I think everything worked well for us in the first half,” Thorson said. “We threw for a bunch of yards, we ran for a bunch of yards, we were really balanced, and when we’re like that I think we’re tough to beat.”

Northwestern has shown for much of the last three games that when the offense is spreading people out, it’s almost impossible to stop. Iowa couldn’t stop it, Michigan State couldn’t stop it and Indiana couldn’t stop it — for the first half.

However when the second half began, Indiana had made some adjustments, and the Northwestern offense started to stall.

“In the second half, a lot of missed opportunities,” Thorson said. “Just little things here or there, it’s not like it was one possession group or one guy every time, but we just got to clean it up and play a full four quarters again.”

After the victory against Michigan State, we all now know how potent this offense can be, and watching it struggle like it did in the second half brings back memories of 2015. It’s unfair to be too critical of the playcalling; Mick McCall has been brilliant for much of the last three games, but when Indiana began to adjust to what Northwestern was doing, it simply reverted to what it had done so many times last year. Running the ball and hoping the defense could hold out.

Northwestern finished the game with 88 plays run with a perfect balance of 44 runs and 44 passes. But most of those passes came in the first half, as Thorson only threw the ball 12 times in the second half, and only five times in the third quarter when the Wildcats were on the field for just 5:42. The offense got away from what had been successful and starting relying solely on Justin Jackson.

This wasn’t the only problem, as the offensive line began to struggle once again following roughly two and a half games of solid protection. The giant holes that Jackson had in the first half were gone, and Thorson was sacked twice in the third quarter alone. It’s unclear why this is the case, considering the perfect protection Thorson had early on in the game.

To make matters worse, Thorson started simply missing on throws, receivers didn’t have as much separation, and the offense as a whole just looked slow and sluggish. Indiana’s defense improved, but that wasn’t the whole reason.

“I think they did make some adjustments at halftime defensively, they did want to scheme some of our routes and I think they did pretty well with that,” Austin Carr said. “But we did make some mistakes, some dropped balls and some routes that I think need to be a little more crisp just to get more separation.”

Now all of this is merely an observation of a very strange game of football and in no way a reason to really worry about the state of Northwestern’s offense. The offense has begun making the steps necessary to become an elite unit, but the next step is being able to respond to defensive adjustments. Northwestern knows what will work early, but has to be able to maintain it throughout all 60 minutes. If Indiana figured out how to stop the NU offense, other teams can figure out what to do schematically, too. This is where it’s important for McCall, Thorson and others to remain a step ahead.

But as Pat Fitzgerald loves to say, Northwestern went 1-0 this week and has somehow saved a season that appeared to be on life support just a month ago. Saturday’s game may have been a tale of two halves, but in the end it’s what you get when you put it all together that truly matters.