Out with Player Grades and in with Three up, Three down, Inside NU's newest postgame evaluation. Rather than handing out grades to the different contributors, we'll give you three players (or position groups) whose stock went up and three players whose performances were disappointing. It wasn’t a perfect performance, but Northwestern did plenty to beat Purdue (and didn’t even need overtime!) Here’s the report.
It’s been an up-and-down season for Skowronek, at least from a statistical standpoint. He looked like a breakout star with 8-123 and 3-86-2 lines in Northwestern’s two non-conference wins, but was held under 50 yards in each of the first six games of Big Ten play and caught 5 passes in a game just once in that span. Against Purdue, we were reminded of what had us so excited back in early September. The 6-foot-4 wideout caught 7 balls for 117 yards and one highlight reel touchdown, his fourth of the year.
For what it’s worth, Pat Fitzgerald praised the sophomore receiver’s year-long consistency after the game. “Maybe he hasn’t gotten the catch totals, but I think he’s been really consistent, he’s run good routes, he’s blocked physically out on the perimeter,” Fitz said. Still, it had to feel good for Skowronek to finally have another big game. He’s got a great rapport with Thorson and was getting separation and making nice catches all night long.
Speaking of Thorson, I was extremely impressed with his performance against the Boilermakers. Coming off of his fifth 2-INT outing of the season, Thorson was locked in, even if his final numbers — 26 for 46, 296 yards, 2 total TDs — don’t jump off the screen. Several of his incompletions were tipped balls or drops. He was decisive, accurate, and most importantly, mistake-free. Skowronek, Flynn Nagel (6 catches, 78 yards) and the rest of his receivers deserve credit for being open, but so does Thorson for consistently delivering perfect strikes to their hands. The most impressive sequence came at the end of the first half, when the redshirt junior led a 7-play, 96-yard drive in 93 seconds. 89 of those yards came through the air, including completions of 20+ yards on three straight plays and the Skowronek touchdown. Thorson started the scoring with a rushing touchdown, his 8th (!) of the season, and surpassed 7,000 career passing yards while leading his team to a fifth consecutive win. Stock: up.
Clayton Thorson has looked like an NFL quarterback today.— Inside NU (@insidenu) November 12, 2017
Northwestern’s pass rush was solid all night but especially got going late in the game as Purdue was forced to all but abandon the unsuccessful run game while playing from behind. Goens was the driving force behind that late surge, recording two of the team’s three total sacks in the fourth quarter. He took down Purdue QB Elijah Sindelar to disrupt a scoring threat early in the fourth, then split a sack with defensive tackle Jordan Thompson (who had a great game in his own right) on back to back possessions later in the quarter. Goens finished with four tackles. With Joe Gaziano, Samdup Miller, Goens and Earnest Brown IV all sophomores or freshmen, Northwestern is pretty stacked at defensive end for at least the next couple seasons.
Honorable mentions: Thompson, Nagel, 4th-down defense, Jeremy Larkin, Nate Hall, Riley Lees
The speed option that really isn’t an option
Over the past few seasons, Northwestern fans have grown to hate the speed option. It’s a play that Mick McCall clearly loves despite having minimal success with it. The problem is that most of the time, it doesn’t even seem like a true option because it’s basically predetermined that Thorson is gonna pitch the ball to Justin Jackson. I don’t even know if it was earlier this season or last year, but I vividly remember seeing Thorson keep the ball on the speed option once and being SHOCKED. On Saturday, Northwestern was facing a 4th and 1 just past midfield early in the first quarter. McCall dialed up a speed option against a stacked box. It went predictably poorly.
And that wasn’t even the first time McCall has dialed up the speed option on fourth down! Who remembers this beauty at a critical juncture against Penn State?
Mick, your play-calling has been significantly better during this winning streak. And sure, the speed option has been productive at times this year. But it still does more harm than good, and it should never, EVER, be used on fourth down. Got it?
The eyes of everyone who suffered through the first quarter
Just look at this carnage.
I don’t even know what else to say. I was half-jokingly, half-seriously rooting for the game to be scoreless at halftime. Luckily, the game got more exciting in the second quarter and the second half wasn’t too bad. But man, the first 15 minutes were brutal.
Obviously the first two “stock down” entries don’t really fit the stated premise of this series, which is to evaluate players or position groups. But that’s because there just wasn’t too much to complain about from an on-field perspective in Saturday’s win. Yeah, Justin Jackson didn’t get anything going, but he was facing stacked boxes. The offensive line only allowed one sack. There were no egregious mistakes, except maybe Gaziano’s penalty that wiped out what would’ve been Northwestern’s first special teams touchdown of the season, courtesy of Riley Lees. Montre Hartage’s targeting penalty was tough to avoid because of the way the long-snapper fell down on that fake punt pass. That reminds me...how the hell did Northwestern give up a 22-yard completion to a long snapper? Maybe that should’ve made this section.
In all seriousness, the one position group I’ll nitpick about is the secondary. That unit allowed Sindelar to throw for 398 yards and 2 touchdowns. Yes, he aired it out 60 times, but that’s still almost 7 yards per attempt. Alonzo Mayo, Godwin Igwebuike and Co. seemed to frequently be a step behind where they needed to be to make a play, and Purdue almost got back into the game as a result. Still, it wasn’t horrible. They didn’t allow any huge plays (Sindelar’s long was 34) and Marcus McShepard sealed the game with an interception off a tip from Kyle Queiro.
Honorable mention: Northwestern’s mathematical contention for the West title