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Northwestern’s offensive shortcomings rear their ugly head in Wisconsin loss

No run-pass balance and poor execution did the Wildcats in.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — For most of this season, when Northwestern’s injury-plagued defense has struggled to make plays, the offense has been able to cover up its mistakes with explosive plays. But on Saturday, the Wildcats played with fire for too long, and paid the price as a result.

The Northwestern defense did not play poorly by any means in the Wildcats’ 21-7 loss to the Badgers at Ryan Field, but it did have trouble with Wisconsin’s multi-faceted rushing attack and wide receiver Jazz Peavy. However, with the Badgers dominating the field position battle, Northwestern had to defend against a short field most possessions.

Wisconsin didn’t put up huge numbers nor perform particularly well on third down, but scored the game’s first touchdown on a 46-yard reverse to Peavy, which set an early tone.

Since the Wildcats started their season turnaround with the win at Iowa on October 1, it has mostly been the high-octane offense leading the way. As the defenses allowed 31, 40, and 24 points to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, the offense was able to respond quickly to keep Northwestern right in the game. That didn’t happen against Wisconsin.

Converting just 5 of 18 third downs, the Wildcats never got in a solid groove offensively. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall half-heartedly tried to establish the run game early, but the front five didn’t give Justin Jackson much room to run. Wisconsin’s defensive line, which held Nebraska to under four yards per carry last week, is one of the best in the Big Ten, but McCall did Jackson and the offense no favors by only giving his star the rock 13 times.

“They’re a good defense,” Austin Carr said after the game. “There’s a reason why they’re a top-ranked team... On offense, all 11 guys have to be on the same page to get us [the wide receivers] the ball.”

Northwestern either punted or committed a turnover on downs in each of the Wildcats’ first five possessions of the game, until rolling off a 8-play, 87-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter. The drive started and ended with Carr. He led it off with a nifty nine-yard catch by the sideline and finished it with a 13-yard touchdown on a seam route up the middle.

That would be the Wildcats’ only sustained offensive success on the day. No one other than Carr did anything of note, especially Clayton Thorson and Jackson, as the Wildcats’ offense simply had trouble staying on the field. That prevented any rhythm from being formed, and forced the defense to play a lot of snaps (Wisconsin doubled up Northwestern in time of possession).

It just felt like nothing went right all day for the offense. The offensive line, even after getting Connor Mahoney back in the starting lineup, struggled mightily. Thorson was the most inaccurate we’ve seen him since early in the year. Other than Carr, the wide receivers, who as a unit have improved greatly throughout the season, struggled.

“We had a few more drops today than we’ve had the rest of the year,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “But, I’ll credit Wisconsin before watching the tape.”

The Badgers’ defensive plan was clear: Let Carr get his yards, and don’t let anyone else hurt us. Since the likes of Flynn Nagel, Andrew Scanlan, Garrett Dickerson and others didn’t do a whole lot, Northwestern didn’t have many options to look to.

Carr and Thorson both mentioned how it was the Wildcats’ inability to gain meaningful yardage on first and second downs led to a bunch of third-and-longs. On those longer conversion attempts, the Wisconsin defense was able to dial up some pressure to speed up Thorson’s decision-making and rush some worse throws. In the most crucial moment of the game, Northwestern faced 3rd and 21 deep in Wisconsin territory.

After dropping back, Thorson was pressured immediately and then got hit by Garret Dooley and Conor Sheehy while attempting to make a throw. The loose ball was picked up by Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon and nine plays later, the Badgers were up 21-7 and well on their way to a win.

Those down-and-distance situations were for too commonplace on Saturday.

“We had momentum going into the fourth, and the fumble killed that,” Pat Fitzgerald said. “You can’t make plays like that and expect to win.”

Thorson admitted that he “probably should have just kept it there.” The fumble was the Wildcats’ only turnover of the day, but it was a very costly one. Northwestern didn’t do much right offensively on Saturday, but that was the nail in the proverbial coffin. The margin of error for the offense is just too narrow with its dearth of play-makers outside of the usual suspects.