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 was another romp for Northwestern, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still room for improvement.
It seems like there’s a spot in the stock up section for Justin Jackson each week. The Ball Carrier set another all-time Northwestern record on Saturday, scoring his 39th career rushing touchdown, breaking out of a tie with Damien Anderson. Jackson also notched the longest run of his career, a 79-yard scamper that preceded his record-breaking touchdown. The senior ended the day with 144 yards on just 18 carries, and he’ll write the last chapter of his storied Northwestern career in next month’s bowl game.
Miller continued his standout freshman season on Saturday. The highlight of the game was his fumble recovery for a touchdown that marked the first defensive points Northwestern has scored this season. The Houston native also registered half a sack, giving him 5.5 on the season. While we’re talking about the defensive line, let’s give some recognition to Joe Gaziano, Alex Miller, and Jordan Thompson for standout performances as well. Oh, and Tyler Lancaster for his awesome William “The Refrigerator” Perry impression.
Illinois marched down the field for a 69-yard touchdown drive to take an early 7-0 lead. Their next nine drives combined for 72 yards. By that point, it was 28-7 Wildcats. Northwestern’s pass defense was absolutely smothering for a second week in a row. Illinois quarterback Chase Thomas went 14 of 31 for only 139 yards and two interceptions. The Wildcats focused on taking away deep routes and forcing Thomas to check down. The longest completion of the night was only 20 yards, and Illinois looked hopeless in third-and-long. Northwestern will look to build on two consecutive standout defensive performances headed into its bowl game.
Honorable mentions: Lancaster, Paddy Fisher, Jelani Roberts, Jeremy Larkin, Hunter Niswander
Clayton Thorson’s accuracy
Saturday was a confounding performance for the Wildcats’ signal-caller. After two straight solid performances against middling defenses, Thorson struggled against one of the worst passing defenses Northwestern has faced all year. Thorson made a bad decision and tossed a brutal interception in the red zone before throwing another ill-advised pass in the second quarter that should have been picked off as well. The redshirt junior made a couple of nice passes, including a 52-yard completion to Bennett Skowronek and a nice touchdown pass to Garrett Dickerson on an RPO, but his overall performance was frustrating.
Third down efficiency
The Wildcats struggled to stay on the field in the first half. Part of this was working with a short field on both touchdown drives. But nonetheless, Northwestern left something to be desired by opening the game 2 for 7 on third downs and finishing the game 4 for 13. Northwestern struggled to get the ball into favorable third down situations, and a relatively ineffective passing attack meant Hunter Niswander got more opportunities to punt in the first half than Pat Fitzgerald would have liked.
Northwestern’s kickoff coverage
Dre Brown torched Northwestern’s kickoff coverage team, taking back four kicks for an average of 31.3 yards, including returns of 49 and 50 yards after Northwestern’s first two scores. Following those two big returns, Northwestern opted to squib kick a couple of times, giving Illinois the football in favorable field position anyways. Illinois struggled to move the ball, so it didn’t matter much in the end, but those are valuable yards Northwestern can’t afford to give up.
Honorable mentions: Sportsmanlike conduct, a competitive rivalry