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Northwestern-Illinois State Recap: Player grades from Northwestern’s 9-7 loss to Illinois State

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It’s bad. It’s so, so bad.

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Every Sunday after a Northwestern win (assuming one is coming) or loss, we'll be handing out player grades as a way to analyze the Wildcats' performance from an individual perspective. Rather than rush out the grades on Saturday, we'll sleep on them, and wake up Sunday ready to accurately evaluate NU's players, coaches and opponents.

The end of days is nearing. Saturday, Northwestern was thoroughly outplayed and narrowly defeated by the Illinois State Redbirds (an FCS squad, need I remind you) at home. The grades below reflect the catastrophic nature of this loss:

Offense:

Overall Grade: D-

This could very easily be an F, given the nature of their opponent, but I’ll give the Wildcats a D- here by virtue of the fact that they actually did get on the scoreboard in this one. You laugh at me thinking that fact actually deserves recognition, but for a while it was within the realm of possibility that the home side would fail to get on the board at all. The Wildcats struggled to string together lengthy drives (not a new problem) all day; they were out-gained 372-277 and picked up only 16 first downs compared to the Redbirds’ 25. Nonsensical play-calling continues to plague offensive coordinator Mick McCall: Clayton Thorson attempted 41 passes on the day (completing 17) and had 12 rushing attempts. Justin Jackson—you know, the guy who ran for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns last week—ran the ball only 11 times. That’s mind-boggling. But, then again, so is this season.

Clayton Thorson

Grade: C-

Stats: 17/41, 191 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT; 12 carries, 30 yards

I’m not going to totally hammer Thorson here, mainly because I think he was simply asked to more than he is capable of in this game. It’s easy to understand Northwestern wanting to experiment in the passing game in what should have been an easily winnable game, but 41 attempts - I repeat 41 attempts - in a game for a player of Thorson’s skill set is unreasonable. There were a few nice tosses sprinkled in there (i.e. Carr’s fourth-down, fourth quarter touchdown) but he was egregiously inefficient (41.5% completion percentage) and only averaged 4.7 yards per attempt, displaying a persistent inability to successfully push the ball down the field. Credit Thorson for not turning the ball over, but it would be disingenuous to pretend he’s not one of the root causes of Northwestern’s offensive ineptitude.

Justin Jackson

Grade: Incomplete

Stats: 11 carries, 39 yards; 1 catch, 5 yards

After spearheading the Wildcat offensive attack in their season opener to the tune of 171 total yards and three touchdowns, Jackson saw his touches cut clean in half against Illinois State. Given how stagnant NU’s offense looked all day, the juxtaposition of the spike in Thorson’s pass and rush attempts to the drop in Jackson’s is unexplainable. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall’s hesitance to pound the rock and over-reliance on Thorson’s unreliable right arm were a key factor in Northwestern losing the time of possession battle 34:18-25:42 (that also takes a toll on your defense, but we’ll get to that later). Jackson left the game in the fourth quarter with what has later been identified as a lower body injury, ceding way to Auston Anderson, who performed admirably, picking up a key fourth down late in the contest. Jackson being under-utilized combined with the injury earn him an incomplete for his performance.

Austin Carr

Grade: A

Stats: 7 catches, 73 yards, 1 TD

If there’s a positive to be taken from this game—and this season for that matter—it’s Austin Carr. Carr looked to be Thorson’s only viable option in the receiving game in Week 1, reeling in five catches for 75 yards, and the senior further established himself as the No. 1 option at wideout this week, somehow totaling 73 yards on 7 catches in a game where offense wasn’t exactly at a premium. Carr was the executioner of the Wildcats’ only significant offensive highlight of the game, a 10-yard touchdown grab on fourth down with just under 10 minutes to play in the game. The catch vaulted Northwestern in front for the time being, but, of course, it would eventually cede the lead.

Offensive Line

Grade: D-

Northwestern lost the battle up front on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball. That much is obvious. Thorson was sacked three times in the game, which actually isn’t terrible, but he was also hit six times and it’s clear that a lack of consistent protection is a key cause of his struggles. In the post-game press conference, Fitzgerald revealed the poor line play is why Northwestern had to throw so much. It was a disappointing performance for a unit that was expected to dominate up front and it’s hard to imagine these issues magically being resolved, given the dearth of experience along the line.

Jack Mitchell

Grade: F

Mitchell missed his only field-goal attempt of the game from only 33 yards out, which was especially devastating given that the miss capped off a 15 play, 64 yard Northwestern drive, one of its best of the game. He did convert the extra point to put Northwestern temporarily in front 7-6, but that’s an entirely different game (especially at the end) if Mitchell’s chip-shot attempt had been true.

Defense

Overall grade: C-

By the numbers, this wasn’t a bad performance by the Northwestern defense as a whole. The group ultimately held the Redbirds to nine points, only allowed ISU to convert three of their 13 third down attempts and won the turnover battle by virtue of two interceptions of Illinois State quarterback Jake Kolbe. But when it mattered the most, up by one with 3:11 remaining, the Wildcat defense surrendered an 11 play, 71 yard drive to ISU, a drive that ended with a game-winning field goal as time expired. There’s no doubt that warrants knocking their overall grade. Significantly.

Anthony Walker

Grade: C

Stats: 7 tackles, 4 solo

Walker nearly replicated an average Week 1 performance against an opponent that appeared to be a better matchup for him, and while this wasn’t a bad game for the Northwestern defense by any stretch, NU needs Walker to play at a superhero level week in and week out if they want to run with with any level of competition. Walker has chance to return to true form against the team that he put together his best performance of 2015 (19 tackles) against, though: Duke.

Montre Hartage

Grade: B-

Stats: 9 tackles, 9 solo, 1 INT

It was a productive day on paper for Hartage, who was thrust into a larger role on the Northwestern defense following Keith Watkins’ season-ending knee injury last month. There were times when it appeared Kolbe was targeting him (and the rest of the Wildcats’ inexperienced secondary for that matter), but overall Hartage held his own; his interception came with ISU driving deep in Northwestern territory early in the second quarter and helped keep the game scoreless at the time. Still, too often Kolbe was able to pick on him, which knocks his grade down a bit.

Defensive Line

Grade: C

The defensive line’s performance has to be considered an improvement over last week but it’s still not at the level it was last year, which was bound to happen after losing the leadership and expertise of both Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson. The Wildcats registered three sacks on the afternoon, but Kolbe looked fairly comfortable throughout, completing 30 of 41 passes for 287 yards. They fared respectably against an underrated ISU rushing attack, but ultimately failed to generate any form of a game-changing push, leaving the secondary to be picked apart (at times) by Kolbe.

Secondary:

Grade: C+

Speaking of the secondary... I’ll give this unit a slight edge over the defensive line only because it was the reason for Northwestern’s greatest advantage of the game: turnovers. Aside from outrushing Illinois State by one yard (86-85), Northwestern’s only other statistical advantage was in the turnover battle, as it picked off Kolbe twice in the game (both times in Northwestern territory). Hartage’s end zone interception halted the Redbirds’ momentum at that point in the contest, and Jared McGee ended an eight-play ISU drive by picking Kolbe off at the Northwestern 10 yard line. Matthew Harris went down in the fourth quarter to a worrisome head injury, though, and his health is incredibly vital to the success of this group. Overall, the Sky Team was opportunistic today, and that’s a quality they’ll need to embrace in order to thrive with such an inexperienced unit. But still, it wasn’t good enough to warrant an especially good grade.