Northwestern’s odds of making a bowl game still lean in the Wildcats’ favor (they can still clinch a berth with a win at Illinois next week), but they missed a golden opportunity with their 29-12 loss to Minnesota on Saturday. Not just an opportunity to assure themselves a spot in postseason play, but also an opportunity to establish an identity.
Alas, inconsistency has been the vice of this team throughout 2016. This fact was never more apparent than in this game, and as a result of this inconsistency, it’s nearly impossible to pin down what exactly went wrong for Northwestern in Minneapolis.
It might be as simple as this: the 2016 campaign has been a tale of two teams, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. There’s the team that started the season 0-2 which could muster only seven points at home against Illinois State. That team had fans calling for Mick McCall’s job and Clayton Thorson’s starting quarterback spot.
Then there’s the team that re-vitalized Northwestern’s frustrated fan base by nearly toppling Ohio State at The Shoe and sucked the soul out of Iowa City, East Lansing and West Lafayette with three explosive offensive performances.
The team that rolled into TCF Bank Stadium today was much closer to the former’s end of the spectrum than the latter.
It certainly had its opportunities. Even after falling behind 6-0 just 2:42 into the game and failing to score until late into the third quarter, it always felt like Northwestern was just one big play away from jumping back into contention. In fact, on paper, Pat Fitzgerald’s team might have played well enough to win this game.
The Wildcats outgained Minnesota 339-328, converted 21 first downs to the Gophers’ 15 and generated as many turnovers as they committed. Despite grappling with disadvantageous field position all night, with exception to Minnesota’s opening drive, the defense held its own and kept Northwestern in the game until unraveling late.
But every time the offense seemed to be on the verge of mounting a comeback, something seemed to stand in its way. Two first-half fumbles for Thorson and a Jack Mitchell missed field goal stand out. So do Pat Fitzgerald’s decisions to go for two after his side drew within 15-6 late in the third quarter and to go for it on fourth down from the Minnesota 22-yard line just minutes later.
“We didn’t give ourselves a whole lot of opportunity today offensively because we beat ourselves first,” Fitzgerald said after the game. “There were a lot of one-man break downs, especially up front, that led to poor timing and an inability to be consistent.”
There’s no one specifically to point at for Northwestern’s disappointing performance. Thorson was sacked eight times on the night and the run game never got going. The offensive line can be better.
Thorson was erratic at times, failing to recognize the correct adjustment for Minnesota’s defensive alignment on multiple occasions (i.e. Justin Jackson losing three yards on a fourth-and-one run late in the second quarter; there were nine Golden Gophers lined up in the box and one-on-one coverage on both Wildcat wideouts lined up wide). To boot, Northwestern only converted two of 15 third down opportunities.
The inconsistency of this team’s offense is a humbling reality. In a season where two of its most important offensive players have been at the top of the Big Ten statistically — with a quarterback that has shown positive flashes — it’s reasonable to expect more than the product that has been on the field at times.
But it might be time to accept this team for what it is: two-faced but without a solid identity. Last season, the defense was the calling card. While this unit has performed admirably through injuries and after graduating a plethora of talent, it isn’t what it was last season. The offense has shown improvement in a number of areas, but nights like tonight afford perspective on past point-explosions, reminding us that it isn’t reliant enough to carry the entire team.
Essentially, Northwestern has one game left to earn a spot in a bowl and salvage a season that looked lost two games in. The Wildcats will be favored against Illinois, but if this team has established anything this year, it’s that nothing is a given. However, it has managed to show remarkable resiliency often. There’s no better time than the final game of the season — with a bowl berth on the line — to flash the ability to bounce back once again.
“It’s a one game playoff next week,” Anthony Walker said. “You win, you’re in. We just gotta flush [today].”