The problems for the Northwestern Wildcats—who fell to 1-3 with a 24-13 home loss to Nebraska on Saturday evening—are varied, as the offensive, defensive and special teams units all faltered to varying degrees against the Cornhuskers.
But through the Wildcats’ first four games, the unit that has most stood out for its ineptitude has been the final one, especially the kicking game. Jack Mitchell, best known for his game-winning 41-yard kick in overtime to beat Notre Dame two seasons ago, missed a 26-yard field goal and an extra point on Saturday, continuing what has been a miserable season for the senior.
Mitchell is now 1-for-4 on field goals this year and 8-for-9 on extra points. He badly missed a short kick in the first quarter that could have given Northwestern an early 3-0 lead and later clanked an extra point attempt off the upright after a Clayton Thorson touchdown pass.
While head coach Pat Fitzgerald was upset with his team for more than just two missed kicks, he seemed extremely frustrated over Mitchell’s play, repeatedly harping on the “self-inflicted wounds” his team made. He referenced the missed field goal and missed extra point multiple times in his postgame press conference.
Fitz also said the starting kicker for next week’s game against Iowa could be either Mitchell or backup/holder Matt Micucci. The redshirt senior warmed up after Mitchell’s third quarter miss and presumably would have gotten a chance if Northwestern had gotten into another kicking situation later in the game.
“That job’s obviously wide open right now,” Fitz said. “We can’t just leave four points out there. If we get those, it’s a totally different game down the stretch.”
To give the usually jovial and often-clichéd Fitz some credit, he’s probably right. While Northwestern lost by two scores, two short makes by Mitchell could have changed the entire scope of this game.
Fitz did joke, a little bit, by saying Mitchell’s job as the Wildcats’ kickoff specialist was safe, but was serious about the open competition for field goal kicking. Northwestern’s offense just isn’t good enough to be able to withstand bad misses that leave points on the table.
Mitchell’s struggles even affected Northwestern’s offensive playcalling and the inconsistent kicking game in general could play a big role in Mick McCall’s gameplan going forward.
Late in the second quarter, facing a 4th and 7 at Nebraska’s 23-yard line, Mitchell and Micucci lined up for what seemed like a regular 40-yard field goal attempt to tie the game. Instead, it was a fake, as Micucci tossed the ball to Mitchell, who threw it back to his holder for a two-yard gain that didn’t come close to reaching the first down marker.
Clearly, the coaching staff didn’t trust Mitchell to attempt a relatively long kick, so it instead determined that having him throw the ball would give the Wildcats a higher chance of putting points on the board before the half. Considering how badly Mitchell has struggled, it was a nice change to see creativity in the play-calling, even if it probably wasn’t the smartest of play designs.
Fitz stopped short of saying whether or not Mitchell’s issues caused any changes in his or McCall’s view of Northwestern’s offense, but this is a situation in which one can read between the lines a little bit: As long as Mitchell (or Micucci) continues to miss very makable field goals, Northwestern is going to be more aggressive on third and fourth down plays.
Northwestern went for it on fourth down twice on Saturday, failing to renew the chains both times. The Wildcats made no such attempts against Duke, but went 3-for-4 in the Illinois State game and 2-for-3 against Western Michigan in Week 1. The first two games’ fourth-down attempts were more due to situational factors, as opposed to the coaches’ distrust of the kicker.
It’s fairly obvious that the surprising fake against Nebraska was a signal that the Wildcats are going to proactively deal with their kicking deficiencies by giving the offense more opportunities to move the ball.
Looking ahead, Northwestern’s future seems bright at the position, with highly-rated recruit Charlie Kuhbander set to join the team next season as the Wildcats’ first kicker commit since Jeff Budzien in 2009. However, there are still at least eight more games to be played until Kuhbander gets to Evanston.
Northwestern really needs either Mitchell or Micucci to step up this week and do at least a replacement-level job next Saturday in Iowa City. If not, the month of October could be even more gruesome for the Wildcats than previously expected. This team, as Fitzgerald reiterated after the Nebraska game, just isn’t good enough to not take advantage of short field goals and point-afters.