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Northwestern-Western Michigan recap: Player grades from Northwestern’s 22-21 loss to Western Michigan

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Up and down is the best way to describe it.

Western Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Every Sunday after a Northwestern win 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.

After a controversial and, overall, disappointing 22-21 loss to Western Michigan, the grades are not very positive:

Offense:

Overall Grade: B-

Even though the offense revolved around Justin Jackson, you can’t be too angry with how Northwestern’s offense performed. It was a far cry from the offensive debacles against Tennessee, Iowa, Michigan and even Wisconsin. It was also far from ideal, especially against a MAC defense, but at least Northwestern was able to put together some solid drives. Northwestern’s offense had very little time on the ball. Northwestern had eight drives. Three of them turned into touchdowns and one drive was about 2 feet shy of a touchdown before disaster struck. Considering Northwestern was at the bottom of college football in offensive production, especially at the end of last year, this was an improvement.

Clayton Thorson

Grade: C

Stats: 15/22, 196 yards; 5 carries, -8 yards, 1 catastrophic fumble

For large portions of this game, it really looked like Clayton Thorson had taken a step forward from last season. The first drive of the season was one of his best as Northwestern’s starting quarterback. He completed 68 percent of his passes and made good, safe decisions for 57 minutes and six seconds. Thorson did not light up the scoresheet, but he showed pocket presence and decision-making that he lacked during the latter half of 2015. His sack escape in the end zone, third down throws to Austin Carr and management of the play-calling were all competent. The failure of the passing game was mostly due to the offensive line.

However, Thorson has to be severely marked down for his one mistake. That fumble at the goal line cost Northwestern the game, and it should not have happened, no matter what the referee’s decision was. There’s really no one else you can blame in this situation. Thorson had trouble with ball security last year, and it reappeared at the worst possible moment after what had been a very clean game.

Justin Jackson

Grade: A+

Stats: 23 carries, 124 yards, 3 touchdowns; 2 catches, 47 yards

While Thorson was good, Justin Jackson remained the key element of Northwestern’s offense. With Warren Long leaving the game with an injury, Jackson was forced to take his usual role as the feature back and he once again excelled. He was simply indispensable. Without his three touchdowns, including an explosive 46-yard dash to the end zone, Northwestern would have surely lost the game much earlier. He was everything you could have wanted from a running back. He got the short chunks of yardage on first or second down. He converted third and shorts. He broke big plays. He punched the ball into the end zone twice from in close. He even made a big difference as a checkdown receiver.

Austin Carr

Grade: A-

Stats: 5 catches, 75 yards

Austin Carr is now on pace to beat his single-season high in receiving yards by Week 3, which is a good sign. Although Western Michigan’s pass defense was unspectacular, Northwestern’s rotating door of receivers looked passable. In particular, Carr filled his role as a possession receiver and go-to target for Thorson with ease. He was able to get open on numerous occasions and he showed off his good run-after-catch ability against Western Michigan’s secondary. It’s just one game, but Carr does seem to be a reliable option as a number-one receiver.

Offensive Line

Grade: D+

Other than the opening drive and Jackson’s long score, the offensive line was a mess. Western Michigan’s front seven was able to pressure Thorson on far too many occasions, which upset Northwestern’s rhythm and ruined any chance at an extended drive. Once again, the line looked fine while run-blocking for Jackson, but its struggle to pick up blitzes and defend extra rushers continues to be a problem. Northwestern clearly felt the loss of Dan Vitale, who would usually chip and assist in pass protection.

Hunter Niswander

Grade: A+

Three punts over 50 yards! He pinned Western Michigan to the 1-yard line! This was the best game I’ve ever seen Niswander play, and while he did not have to punt often due to Northwestern lack of time on the ball, he was very good. He has earned the “Hunter the Punter” nickname that all Hunters who are punters covet.

Defense

Overall Grade: C-

The offense looked better than the defense. It’s that easy. The biggest problem for this defense was that it couldn’t get Western Michigan off the field. Western Michigan was 7 for 17 on third down and a shocking 4 for 4 on fourth down. Northwestern played well in non-clutch situation, but completely collapsed when the time came to get Western Michigan off the field. Part of that is credit to P.J. Fleck’s coaching staff and emphasis on converting third downs, but there were some plays that Northwestern just got beaten badly through poor tackling and poor defensive scheme. Zach Terrell running for a first down on 3rd-and-18? Inexcusable. Northwestern was lucky that Western Michigan was not able to convert its opportunities in the first half, and downright bad in the second half. Not what we were expecting to see.

Anthony Walker

Grade: C

Stats: 7 tackles, 5 solo

Walker was not much of a factor in his first game of the season. Other than a near-stuff at the goal line on fourth down for Western Michigan (that didn’t even hold up under review), Walker was merely average, rather than his usual dominant stuff. There were moments where Zach Terrell evaded Walker in the open field, which is something that we’re not used to seeing. Like the rest of the defense, Walker was mostly ineffective in stopping Western Michigan in key situations.

Jaylen Prater

Grade: A-

Stats: 18 tackles, 9 solo, 1 tackle for loss

The player who looked the most like “The Franchise” was actually his fellow linebacker, Jaylen Prater, who played a great game and kept Northwestern’s defense afloat. He was all over the field and doing what Walker usually does—cleaning up Northwestern’s messes. Prater looks very solid and, more importantly, fully healthy after his season-ending injury in 2015.

Defensive front

Grade: D+

After a promising start to the game, Northwestern’s pass rush fell apart in the second half. Zach Terrell had plenty of time to throw the ball and only took one sack. However, the beginning of the game did look very promising. Joe Gaziano looked dangerous in the first assignment of his career. Tyler Lancaster and Ifeadi Odenigbo caused havoc. But as soon as Western Michigan adjusted and Northwestern started to tire, there was nothing from the pass rush. As feared, Odenigbo disappeared for large stretches of the game, especially against the run. Western Michigan was able to focus on Lancaster, and Hankwitz refused to call blitzes to ease the workload of the front four. And of course, the defensive front repeatedly capitulated on key short-yardage situations. In the end, Western Michigan scored 16 points in the second half and Northwestern looked incapable of stopping the Broncos.

Secondary

Grade: C+

In general, Northwestern’s secondary did a good job of keeping star receiver Corey Davis in check. However, it failed to produce in key situations and allowed Western Michigan to consistently extend drives and reduce Northwestern’s ability to score. At times the secondary looked like it had missed two months worth of tackling drills when Terrell or Bogan got into the open field. Once Western Michigan realized that throwing deep balls against Northwestern’s secondary was ineffective, it beat Northwestern through short and mid-range passes that were easy to get because Terrell was not pressured whatsoever. Additionally, Godwin Igwebuike missed a chance to produce a big turnover when Terrell launched a ball right into his hands. Igwebuike alertly jumped up and got both hands on the ball, but he couldn’t reel it in.