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Where Are We Wednesday, Week 2: It’s time for concern—but not panic—about Northwestern

The Wildcats are going to get better with time. How much time, though, is key.

Western Michigan v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

A new feature to our gameweek schedule this season is Where Are We Wednesday, a mid-week evaluation of where Northwestern currently sits in the big picture of things—what the season outlook is and how it changes every week. As Northwestern grinds through a 12-game regular season, that outlook changes every week based on what both the team, and the teams around the Wildcats, do. Here’s the Week 2 edition:

The outcome doesn’t sit well right now.

And why would it?

Northwestern dropped a close and very winnable game against Western Michigan on Saturday. The Wildcats haven’t lost a single-possession game since #M00N, which seems, well, many moons ago. Pat Fitzgerald has only lost two season openers in 11 seasons, but both have come in the last three years. His team’s performance up front on both sides of the ball was underwhelming at best.

And despite the concerning end result, as well as how the team got there, it’s not time to panic about this year’s Wildcats. Why? Because they will improve, and improve a lot. The questions right now are how much and how fast.

First, let’s look at things in the positive light: Northwestern will almost assuredly see major improvement throughout the year, especially on defense, which was the most disappointing aspect of the game.

Alonzo Mayo. Joe Gaziano. Fred Wyatt. Alex Miller. Nathan Fox. Trae Williams.

That’s the list of defenders—six in total—who played in their first collegiate game ever on Saturday and played a non-negligible role. Also, Montre Hartage, who was used sparingly on special teams and defense in 2015, got his first college start at cornerback.

Gaziano in particular had a couple of nice moments. Hartage generally did a solid job in coverage in his first-ever start, and when he got hurt and went out for a bit, Mayo and Williams filled in ably.

That is a lot of youth on the defense. By contrast, in last year’s season opener against Stanford, only Nate Hall, Cameron Queiro and Ben Oxley (now an offensive lineman) made their college debuts for the Wildcat defense. That trio combined for four tackles. This year’s group of newcomers combined for 19 tackles, one pass breakup, one half-tackle for loss and one quarterback hurry.

“There’s nothing like game experience,” Pat Fitzgerald said in his postgame press conference. “As I looked around the room, a lot of those younger faces, and even some of those older guys playing, they’re gonna have the pain of regret, because they learned a tough lesson today.”

It was the little things, the head coach mentioned, that hurt the young Northwestern defense. Fitting the wrong gap—going inside instead of staying outside or vice versa—was a common mistake. Say what you will about Western Michigan; a fifth-year senior quarterback (Zach Terrell) and a sophomore running back who carried the ball 162 times for over 1000 yards as a freshman (Jamauri Bogan) knew how to take advantage of any minuscule breakdown. The Broncos did that to the tune of 198 yards on the ground while converting 7-of-17 third downs and 4-of-4 fourth downs, meaning P.J. Fleck’s squad kept a drive alive 11 of the 17 times it attempted to. Last year, the Wildcats were 15th in the nation on third down, allowing a 32.5 percent conversion rate. They were 42nd in the nation on fourth down at 45.8 percent.

“Any defense can’t stay out on the field that long,” Fitzgerald said.

It’s true. The Wildcats were nearly doubled up in time of possession (39:04 to 21:56) and ran 31 fewer plays than the Broncos. As we noted in the game story, the Wildcats gave up three drives of 12-plus plays. They gave up just eight all of last season, and never more than two in a single game. One could argue that as poorly as the defense played, it should be lauded for only giving up 22 points—the red zone defense was generally solid. Regardless, it’s always going to be hard for a team that relies on running the ball and controlling the clock to win given those big deficiencies.

Some of the blame falls on the offense as well, but perhaps not as much as one would think. Given that the defense couldn’t get off the field, the offense only got eight drives. Three resulted in touchdowns. One ended just a yard short of a score.

That one yard is what will get nearly all of the attention when it comes to Clayton Thorson’s performance, as it should. Not only did it essentially determine the outcome of the game, but it continued a concerning trend. Thorson has lost four fumbles in 14 career games. Add in 10 career interceptions—though none on Saturday—and he has averaged one turnover per game thus far in his college career.

“I gotta hold onto the ball; I can’t fumble on the one-yard line,” Thorson said. “I could’ve scored, but even if I didn’t, I should have gone down or something. Can’t fumble on the one.”

It’s unfortunate to see, not only because of what it meant for the outcome, but because it also overshadowed what was a solid performance until then. His 8.91 yards per attempt was a career-high mark against FBS opponents. His 68.2 completion percentage was second-best against FBS competition, trailing just a 14-for-19 effort against Minnesota last year. His QBR of 143.0 trailed just his 152.9 effort against Ball State when it comes to FBS foes, and it was even better than Terrell’s on Saturday. Thorson looked comfortable in the pocket—or whatever pocket he was afforded by his offensive line—for the most part, and he didn’t throw a single pass that could have been intercepted. His development as a passer was obvious. As a result, Mick McCall was able to play-call aggressively—Thorson threw the ball on 10 of 22 first-down plays.

Meanwhile, Justin Jackson was the same old Justin Jackson, but perhaps even better. He ran for 124 yards on just 23 carries and found the end zone three times. Last year, Jackson didn’t notch his third touchdown until Week 11 against Wisconsin. He caught two passes out of the backfield as well.

Those are the good things. There’s considerable room for improvement from what is a much younger defense as a whole than last year. There are positive signs from Clayton Thorson, and Justin Jackson looks even better than he did last year.

But of course, there are reasons to be concerned, not the least of which was the game result: a loss. Northwestern was one of just two Big Ten teams to lose its opener. The other was Rutgers. Not exactly ideal company.

The biggest concern, by far, was up front on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the Wildcats were pushed around. They recorded four tackles for loss as a while, but not a single one by a starting defensive lineman; Fred Wyatt collected half of one to lead the guys up front. The one sack of the afternoon came from Brett Walsh. Tyler Lancaster’s name didn’t even appear in the stat book, mainly because he was double-teamed the entire afternoon. Last year’s defense was so astonishingly good because if offenses double-teamed one of Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Tyler Lancaster, they couldn’t double the two others that could beat you. That’s clearly not the case this season, or at least it wasn’t against the Broncos. And if the Wildcats are getting pushed around by Western Michigan— absolutely no disrespect to the Broncos’ front— what will happen in Big Ten play? Last year, Mike Hankwitz could send just four guys and win up front, and from there the simple number advantage belonged to the Wildcats: four defensive linemen handling five linemen plus a quarterback and often a running back, too. That was not the case at all in Week 1. Will Hankwitz have to blitz more? Are there different personnel groups that will be introduced? The are adjustments to be made all over.

And that’s not to mention Anthony Walker, who wasn’t mentioned much anyway on Saturday. Walker is a fantastic player and very good run-stopper. But without an effective defensive line in front of him, he struggled, both in the passing game and in the running game. Walker will adjust and get back to is All-American way—he’s simply too athletic and too good to not do so—but a better front four will help him a lot.

On the offensive side of the ball, the problems were mainly up front as well. Unlike the defensive line, though, inexperience cannot be used as a reason for Week 1 struggles. The Wildcats started five guys with significant experience—four with multiple starts last year—and gave up three sacks despite improved pocket presence from Thorson. That may be the most concerning aspect of this game. The defense was facing massive turnover; the offense wasn’t, especially not on the line.

It’s pretty simple through one week of action, though: Northwestern lost a game it could have won, something it never did last year. A bounce or two didn’t go the Wildcats’ way. It is often said, however, that you create your own luck, and that certainly rang true in Week 1. Northwestern did not play well enough on defense to grab the win affirmatively, and the offense made a crucial mistake to let a win slip out of the team’s grasp entirely. But, the defense is young. The quarterback looked improved, and hence, so did the play-calling. No season has ever been lost or won in Week 1.

Week 2 presents a challenge—Illinois State is a very good FCS team—but also an opportunity to show major growth from Week 1 in a game in which the Wildcats will be double-digit favorites.

“We have a lot of the season left, Fitzgerald said in his post-game press conference. “And there were signs of a very good football team today...I would remind [fans] that the sky is not falling.”

He paused for a second.

“You know Annie?”

He gave a bit of a wry smile.

“The sun will come up tomorrow, and you go back to work.”