Northwestern enters its bye week at 2-3 but coming off an important and uplifting win over Iowa. The Wildcats are hoping to carry some of that momentum into what will be a very challenging four-game stretch (Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, three of which take place in historically Pat Fitzgerald’s worst month: October.
So what do the Wildcats need to work on during this week? Here are five things for Fitzgerald and his team to improve upon.
1. Kick/punt coverage
“We got our ass kicked.”
That’s how Fitzgerald described his team’s coverage units’ performance against Iowa, which racked up 254 return yards total. As far as punt coverage is concerned, Desmond Kind averaged over 19 yards per return, and Riley McCarron had a 38-yard return on a trick play of sorts when King, on the other side of the field, acted like the ball was coming to him.
The kick coverage team was even worse, giving up a 58 yard return to McCarron and three sizable returns to King. It consistently put the defense in difficult situations.
The biggest area of concern was the tackling. Northwestern got several opportunities at King on a couple of punt returns and came up empty. That’s something that can be improved upon simply from practicing. The schematic breakdowns are things that can be learned from in the film room, and players will surely get plenty of time in there during the week off.
2. Get healthy
Every team uses the bye week to get healthy, but this is especially true in Northwestern’s case.
Matthew Harris remains out with an injury, and though we don’t know its extent, an extra week certainly can’t hurt.
Perhaps the biggest return could be that of backup running back Warren Long. Long is an absolute stud on special teams, and he has missed the past several weeks with a broken hand suffered in week one. The initial prognosis was about a month until re-evaluation, and yesterday was the one month mark. He has nearly two more entire weeks to heal up and hopefully return, even if it is just on the struggling coverage units.
Finally, this week gives all the guys with bumps and bruises a week off, and Fitzgerald said that lots of youngsters will get extra reps as the starters take fewer. That means guys like Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson, Anthony Walker Jr., Jaylen Prater and Godwin Igwebuike should be rested up and feeling 100 percent for Michigan State next week.
3. Focus on maintaining a balanced offense
The bye week gives coaches a chance to step back and look at their work as a whole, too. And one of the things much-maligned offensive coordinator Mick McCall will realize is that when Jackson’s successful, the offense is successful. And the best way to ensure Jackson’s success is to just keep running him. He’s a guy who gets stronger as games go on and from a pure running back skills standpoint, one of the best in the nation. He received 28 carries against Duke and 26 against Iowa, the two Wildcat wins this year. Obviously when the team is trailing, it will have to throw more to try to get back in the game, but McCall ought to focus on keeping Jackson as involved as possible, even when behind, as he did against Iowa.
4. Study Indiana
Why the Hoosiers? Both teams run a spread offense (though NU’s has gradually become less spread and also less successful), but defensively, the Wildcats can learn from the Hoosiers just like they could from North Dakota State versus Iowa. The Hoosiers play a four-man front and were able to limit Michigan State to just 4.3 yards per carry. LJ Scott found it tough sledding, picking up just 38 yards on 11 carries. The Hoosiers were able to withstand a three-touchdown game from quarterback Tyler O’Connor mainly because of their success with stopping the run.
5. Stay pissed off
Of all the great soundbites Ifeadi Odenigbo delivered in the post-game press conference, his “I woke up and I was pissed off” comment was perhaps the best. And because of that, he played the best game of his career. Northwestern has to stay pissed off, even if it is coming off a huge win. The Wildcats won’t be favorites, but they certainly can beat Michigan State. It will just take another pissed off effort.