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Northwestern survives Nevada despite struggles in the trenches

The Wildcats won, but their line play was cause for concern.

NCAA Football: Nevada at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

For the an entire half, Northwestern fans felt a growing sense of déjà vu. In last year’s non-conference losses against Western Michigan and Illinois State, the driving force the Wildcats’ defeat was poor line play. Today, Northwestern narrowly avoided a similar loss. Once again, it was the men up front that put Northwestern in a tough position.

Offensive line issues

The Wildcats averaged only 3.1 yards per carry despite facing a defense that gave up 300 rushing yards per game last season. They were unable to create holes for Justin Jackson for most of the game, as the senior running back had to break numerous tackles just to gain positive yardage multiple times. He was never able to truly break free for a big gain. Despite a whopping 50 total carries, no rusher ever gained more than 13 yards on a single play, and this lack of explosiveness made the Wildcats predictable for much of the game.

Nevada’s new 3-3-5 stack worked well against Northwestern’s running game, as Justin Jackson, Jeremy Larkin, and John Moten were often bottled up behind the line of scrimmage.

“It looked like we had some run-throughs by their linebackers where our o-line was targeting improperly,” Fitzgerald said. “They had a lot of guys in the box.” He also mentioned their lack of third down success in the first half, which was partially caused by the ineffective run game creating difficult down-and-distance situations. Regardless, Northwestern’s rushing attack was mediocre against a purportedly easy opponent. Perhaps Nevada’s run defense will be much better this year, but it’s still not a good look.

The offensive line did protect Clayton Thorson well, giving him enough time to complete three important deep passes that were key to Northwestern coming away with the victory. But their inability to create space for Jackson, especially on runs up the middle, made their run game one-dimensional, which will come back to bite them in the future if it continues. It’s not time to panic yet, as guys like Rashawn Slater and Jared Thomas were getting their first real live snaps in their careers, but it was definitely troubling.

Defensive line issues

The players on the front seven were largely unable to create push for the entirety of the first half. Nobody recorded a single hurry, and Nevada was able to rush for over 6 yards per carry. This complete no-show was a big factor in the shocking 17-7 halftime scoreline. Ty Gangi had all day to throw and he took advantage of it, putting up 142 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Wolfpack were also able to go 5-of-8 on 3rd down attempts in the first half, thanks to usually being in good positions to convert.

Hankwitz and the defense adjusted slightly in the second half, often by throwing line combinations at the wall and hoping they knocked over something. Joe Gaziano spearheaded the effort, recording 4 hurries and a tackle for loss while also getting great push on the big 4th and 1 stop late in the 4th quarter. Tyler Lancaster, Fred Wyatt, and even Earnest Brown, (one of nine true freshmen to see action on the day, a Fitz record), recorded hurries as well. The pressure limited Gangi to 7-of-17 for 57 yards and an interception in the second half. Despite going without 3 of their top 4 corners at the end of the game, Northwestern was able to put up considerably better defensive numbers when they got pressure from their front 4.

However, Nevada’s offensive line is nothing compared to the blockers the Wildcats will face as they head into Big Ten play, which makes the near-disastrous slow start even more troubling. Northwestern recorded zero sacks against the Wolf Pack, which won’t cut it against Duke, let alone Penn State and Wisconsin. The linebackers, sans Anthony Walker Jr., did not make a single “impact play” (no forced fumbles, interceptions, tackles for loss, passes defensed, or hurries) outside of Warren Long’s special teams heroics. Maybe the Wildcats were saving some of its exotic pressures for later down the road, but the defensive gameplan against Nevada was not very effective.

Tyler Lancaster and Pat Fitzgerald emphasized the necessity of starting quickly numerous times over the offseason, but against Nevada neither of the lines were able to do so. Thanks to Clayton Thorson and the defense’s second half improvements they were able to survive, but the struggles were reminiscent of last year’s issues. Northwestern must get its play in the trenches cleaned up quickly if it wants to contend for a Big Ten West title.