Generally, one is an accident, two is a trend and three is a problem. Through two games, Northwestern has been solidly beaten up front by a MAC team and an FCS team. So it’s pretty safe to say that this trend is quickly turning into a problem.
Right now, Northwestern is not a good football team. Far from it. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most apparent ones is a lack of physicality up front. Northwestern got beat in the trenches against Western Michigan, giving up three sacks offensively and 198 rushing yards on defense. It was only one game, so no reason to panic, right? However, a week later Northwestern came out and gave up three sacks once again and only rushed for 86 yards against Illinois State, an FCS team.
Clearly a problem. A major one.
“There’s no way I could have predicted that our offensive line would be as inefficient as they were today,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’re not consistent enough fundamentally, we’re not executing well enough and that’s really disappointing.”
The defensive line was not fantastic on Saturday, but they did manage to hold ISU to 2.8 yards per carry and only nine points. Similar to last week, however, Northwestern lost the time of possession battle, as the defense was on the field for over 34 minutes. While the defense certainly plays a part here, ISU was only 3 for 13 on third downs. It was the offense, which was 5 for 18 on third down, that failed the team time and time again.
“We had a lot of one-man and individual breakdowns offensively. We couldn’t get anything going consistently,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought we’d be able to move the ball better on the ground.”
The offense just couldn’t finish drives when they stringed some success together, and a lot of that comes down to the fact that Northwestern couldn’t get any push up front. Northwestern’s offensive line got simply outplayed. That led to only 2.8 yards per carry on 31 rushes and Clayton Thorson running for his life whenever he’d drop back to pass, which was almost 50 times.
“Our inability to run the football is why we had to throw the ball so much,” Fitzgerald said. “Our o-line got out-played. Flat out. We beat ourselves, and they beat us up.”
This is a fundamental problem with the offense. If the lineman can’t run block, then Northwestern is forced to throw the ball, but if the lineman also can’t give Thorson time to throw, then the offense will look like it did on Saturday. Bad. Offensive line play has been a problem for Northwestern before, but not to the extent that’s it’s been through two games in 2016. Even with poor offensive play, Justin Jackson had been able to do enough to keep the offense moving reasonably. That wasn’t the case even against an FCS front.
Countless times on Saturday, Thorson would step back to pass only to have a rusher coming at him from the blind side and be forced to roll out. In fact, 12 of Northwestern’s 31 rushes were by Thorson himself, and fewer than a handful of them were designed runs. This doesn’t completely excuse Thorson for his 17-41 performance, but it’s hard to complete passes when you’re constantly under pressure.
Then when Northwestern tried to run it, they were stonewalled, leading to an offensive identity crisis. Northwestern’s best offensive player is running back Justin Jackson, and despite the late injury, he only had 11 carries for 39 yards, with one of those carries going for 15. It was the fourth-fewest mark of his career. The three below? Blowout losses against Iowa and Michigan and the infamous #M00N game. Even before he got hurt, Northwestern was forced to turn away from its supposed strength—the run game—against an FCS opponent. That’s inexcusable.
Northwestern tried time and time again to run Jackson on stretch plays to the outside, only be tackled for a loss or get called for holding. The line lost at the point of attack and it showed. The linemen weren’t quick enough to lead a convoy for Jackson around the edge, and they weren’t strong enough to simply move defenders out of the way.
“Today we just got our butts kicked,” offensive lineman and captain Connor Mahoney said. “Illinois State, give them credit, they came out and punched us in the mouth. We’ve got to be better and that starts with me and then it goes to the other four guys on the starting line.”
Unlike the defensive line, which can rotate players in to keep everyone fresh, there’s no easy solution to the offensive line problem. The line just simply has to be better. If this is the kind of pressure a team like ISU is getting against Northwestern what is going to happen when the team plays Iowa or Ohio State? If the level of play doesn’t improve, things will get even uglier as conference play gets underway.
It has to start at a fundamental level and build from there. There can’t be four holding calls against the line, there can’t be a rusher in the backfield on every play and there absolutely can not be so little that Justin Jackson has one of the worst outings of his career. If these things can’t be fixed, then Northwestern will have trouble against Duke, and then Nebraska and every other team it plays the rest of the season.
“I gotta be better, and the o-line will be better,” Mahoney said. “We’re going to come to work this week and it’s our only choice. We will be better.”
If Northwestern wants to turn this season around, they absolutely have to be.
But the “we have to be better and will be better” idea gets old fast. After two weeks of incredibly underwhelming play, it already has.