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Northwestern’s passing attack flourishes against Bowling Green

That’s more like it.

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Isn’t it great when an offense comes together? After a languid performance against Duke, Northwestern feasted on a porous Bowling Green defense, putting up 678 yards en route to a 49-7 victory.

After three non-conference games, it’s clear that Northwestern needs to get its big play, downfield passing game going to reach any level of competency. In the second half against Nevada and the first against Bowling Green, Northwestern’s offense started clicking once Clayton Thorson started airing the ball out downfield. The holes begin to open for the running game, and the offensive line can start to feel comfortable as teams are forced to drop into coverage. Northwestern’s explosiveness clearly breeds offensive efficiency.

The standout line from Saturday came from Garrett Dickerson, who had a career day in the passing game. The superback had 9 catches for 150 yards (exceeding his previous best yardage total by 104), including three catches of 25+ yards. Dickerson has mainly been known for his blocking in his career, but today he looked like a versatile pass-catcher and safety blanket for Thorson. Needless to say, that would be huge for this team.

“A lot of it was what the defense was giving to us...It’s my opportunity to make a play,” Dickerson said.

Meanwhile, sophomore Bennett Skowronek continued to take Austin Carr’s mantle of “the big play guy.” Against Bowling Green, Skowronek’s explosiveness broke the game open. With Northwestern tied 7-7, Thorson threw a 58-yard bomb downfield to Skowronek to take a 14-7 lead. It was the type of big play that completely eluded Northwestern in Durham last week. Skowronek ended the game with 86 yards and 2 touchdowns. We’ll see if he can ride the momentum from Nevada and Bowling Green into conference play, but his size and speed are impressive and it appears Skowronek has developed a real rapport with Thorson over the last year. One former player has been a believer since last season.

“We’ve been seeing that since his true freshman year,” Thorson said. “I remember his true freshman year, he caught a ball over someone in 7-on-7. Anthony Walker came up and said ‘this guy is gonna be really good, he’s the best guy on the roster right now’. We had Austin [Carr] on the roster, so I said to chill out.”

When Northwestern abandons dinking-and-dunking and uses its receivers to spread the field, its offense can look unstoppable. Once that vertical threat is established, the short passes into the flat and zone runs can start flowing. It could’ve been even better were it not for two fumbles in the third quarter that killed promising Northwestern drives.

Everything was working against Bowling Green, a game which should provide the blueprint for the remainder of the season. Northwestern shored up its offensive line on Saturday by rotating Blake Hance back through left tackle and giving J.B. Butler more playing time. Yes, it was against mediocre competition, but this was easily Northwestern’s best offensive line performance thus far. Bowling Green’s pass rush isn’t even that bad, and yet it was a total non-factor.

The importance of Northwestern’s offense firing on cylinders is magnified by glaring issues on the other side of the ball. Right now, the defense is still a work in progress. Numerous injuries to the secondary (Keith Watkins, Marcus McShepard, Brian Bullock, etc.) have left Northwestern extremely vulnerable to opposing passing attacks. We all remember what Duke did, but at times, even Bowling Green had success throwing against the Wildcats’ secondary. We’ll see how healthy Northwestern can get out of the bye week, but we could be looking at a lot of shootouts down the road. Think Northwestern/Iowa and Northwestern/Michigan State from 2016, not Northwestern/Wisconsin in 2015.

Thus, the downfield passing game might prove to be the most important component of the team, a shift from Northwestern teams from the last three seasons. Skowronek, Macan Wilson, Flynn Nagel, and others need to make big plays and stretch the field in order for the team to survive in the Big Ten. It’s a high-risk play, but given the lack of depth elsewhere on the squad, what other choice does Northwestern have?

Northwestern isn’t always going to have superior athletes on the field like it had against the Falcons, but as last year’s games against Iowa and Michigan State proved, that doesn’t necessarily mean “going full Big 12” won’t work. It certainly appears that Fitzgerald is going all-in on 2017, especially after burning 10 redshirts through three games. While Fitzgerald said the team definitely needs to work on “all three phases” of the game in the postgame press conference, taking an aggressive approach on offense could make the real difference this year.