MADISON, WI — An incredible first half performance by Northwestern’s defense gave the Wildcats a chance at a massive road upset on Saturday, but conservative play-calling and poor execution from everyone involved with the offense allowed Wisconsin (4-0 1-0 Big Ten) to pull away in the third quarter and hold on with a 33-24 win.
The Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) forced three Badger turnovers in the opening 30 minutes, repeatedly setting up the offense with good field position. But Mick McCall’s unit, content to run up the middle into a sea of red and throw quick-hitting passes, couldn’t move the ball at all, settling for 10 points on three first-half drives that started in Wisconsin territory. Northwestern scored just 3 points off of those turnovers, which coach Pat Fitzgerald called “the difference in the game.”
McCall’s job gets a lot harder when the offensive line is getting dominated, though. Northwestern gave up TEN sacks on the day and couldn’t create any holes in the running game. Wisconsin linebacker Garrett Dooley had four of those sacks on his own.
And it wasn’t just the line’s fault, either. Quarterback Clayton Thorson looked overmatched on the road for the second time this year. After going 11 for 29 for 120 yards (4.1 YPA) and 2 picks against Duke, the junior posted similar numbers against the Badgers prior to garbage time, completing 23 of his first 37 passes for 157 yards (4.2 YPA) and two more interceptions, including a pick-six that made a comeback nearly impossible.
Playing behind a woeful offensive line can’t be easy, but Thorson needs to be better. On at least several of the sacks, he held onto the ball for too long. His two picks were poor throws under pressure, and he ended any chance Northwestern had at a final rally by mindlessly taking a safety on a roll out.
“We have to protect better, we’ve got to get open and he’s got to get it out of his hands,” Fitzgerald said. “When [the passing game] is off, it’s just really ugly, and for a while today it was really ugly.”
Despite the failures of the offensive line and the quarterback, the issues come back to coaching and play-calling. Thorson never had a chance to succeed, which is possible even if the line isn’t giving him much time.
“We have to put him in better situations and that’s protections, it’s calls, it’s routes, schematics,” Fitzgerald said.
A wasted opportunity to jump out to a very early 7-point lead set the tone for a what-could-have-been performance by the offense. Northwestern recovered a fumble on the first play from scrimmage of the game, and two plays into the ensuing possession that started at the Wisconsin 24, the Wildcats faced a third-and-1. Jackson was stuffed for a loss of a yard and Northwestern had to settle for 3 points.
Early in the second quarter, following an interception by true freshman JR Pace, the offense got the ball at the Wisconsin 44 trailing 7-3. Thorson ran for nine yards on 2nd and 10, setting up another third-and-1. Again, Jackson was stuffed up the middle. Just like the previous one, there was nothing the ailing running back could’ve done.
“No excuse...I mean it’s embarrassing quite frankly. It’s embarrassing. Third-and-1 and you get your lips knocked off,” Fitzgerald said. “Obviously our sense of urgency in those times wasn’t good enough.”
After going up 10-7 by putting together a long 44-yard touchdown drive, Northwestern looked to have a chance to add on before halftime when Godwin Igwebuike made a great play to pick off Hornibrook. Northwestern’s offense didn’t gain a single yard before it had to punt.
After the game, Fitzgerald mentioned “calls” as an issue several times, but unsurprisingly wouldn’t publicly direct any blame at his offensive coordinator. While there is truth to the fact that it’s hard to throw the ball downfield with no pass protection, the playcalling was far too conservative all game long to pin all of the problems on the line.
A typical series for the Wildcats was very predictable. Run up the middle or throw a quick slant for a few yards on first down, do the same thing on second down, and get sacked on third down. The continued insistence on inside zone runs was especially perplexing. Northwestern’s running backs carried the ball 20 times for 67 yards, and virtually all of the moderate gains came on runs outside the tackles, including the surprisingly successful speed option.
With the run game not presenting a threat, very little opened up in the passing game, which led to Thorson holding onto the ball and taking sacks. It’s all a vicious cycle.
The Wildcats began to move the ball a bit in the fourth quarter, going up-tempo and pulling to within a score at 31-24. The defense, to its credit, rebounded from a tough third quarter and made some stops in the fourth.
But with a chance to make something magical happen, all of the offense’s problems were summed up in one final sack. Thorson rolled out, Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon had a free run at him, and the third-year starting QB made the ill-fated decision to try to run around the defender. He couldn’t, and the game was over.
“I gotta throw it away,” Thorson said. “There’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it, I gotta throw it away.”
Now Northwestern has to try to throw this game away, and the three most basic pieces of the offense — the line, the coaches, and Thorson himself — have to look in the mirror and make some changes.