After getting his first career touchdown early on, the true freshman seemed to disappear for awhile. But his tough running down the stretch closed things out for a Wildcat team that is searching for an answer next to Clayton Thorson in the backfield. Is Rutgers especially good at run defense? Not really, but that doesn’t mean that Bowser’s 108 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries should be erased.
Once again, Northwestern’s star defensive end came to play. Gaziano only officially recorded one sack and one hurry, but he delivered at least three monster hits on Sitkowski and was milliseconds away from having the frazzled freshman in his arms at seemingly all times. Gaziano continues to see a disproportionate amount of attention, and while his teammates aren’t making plays around him at the volume one would look for, the Scituate, Mass. native has kept on producing.
This was a game that was light on individual performances on Northwestern side. So while Nagel has had considerably better performances in recent weeks, his consistency today gets him on this list as well. Thorson was 8-of-12 for 71 yards and a 2-point conversion throwing to Nagel, and just 9-of-22 for 79 yards when targeting anyone else. With the conversion, a huge fourth down pickup, and a couple of nice third down gains, Nagel came up big in the clutch once again this week, and notwithstanding a bad drop, was once again an ideal safety net for his quarterback.
Honorable Mentions: Chad Hanaoka, Samdup Miller, Jake Collins, Purdue
Despite his head coach insisting that winning is all that matters, Thorson’s play today was cause for concern. Rutgers’ pass defense, while better than their run defense, still graded out as one of the worst in the conference entering yesterday. Northwestern’s quarterback missed multiple open throws, and though he stayed consistent with Nagel, he couldn’t find another receiver consistently. Thorson did have a couple of nice third down conversions late in the game to Charlie Fessler and RCB, but the amount of throws that he was just off on combined with shaky pocket presence (though his line did him few favors) to create a disappointing performance. He’s brought his A-game before this season after setbacks, and Northwestern will need their leader to step up once more over the next couple of weeks.
The team looked generally complacent and unmotivated, especially in the first half. Fitzgerald had a few inspired calls down the stretch, namely going for it on 4th and 4 on the go-ahead touchdown drive. But for all his talk this week about the team not overlooking a team like Rutgers, that’s what they appeared to do. Offensively, the lethargy was helped by a backslide in play calling after a couple of encouraging weeks for Mick McCall. The Wildcats went too run-heavy early, and though Rutgers was giving up chunk plays left and right on stretch runs, Northwestern continued to force it inside for nearly the entire game. The staff could do with a reset as they enter the most important stretch of the season.
Defensive Playmaking Ability
This one might not exactly roll off the tongue, but the defense’s problems over the past couple of weeks are more systemic than they are limited to one specific player. Northwestern has now forced just eight turnovers in seven games after forcing 25 last year. Yesterday, against a Scarlet Knights team that entered the game last in the country in turnover margin, they yet again failed to generate a big play in regard to turnovers. With an unofficial havoc rate of 12.3%, four points less than the nationwide average, it wasn’t just an unlucky break either.
The secondary is breaking up passes and intercepting balls and a solid, even above-average rate, and the sack numbers are decent. This year’s main problem in terms of a lack of big defensive plays seems to rest with the linebackers. After combining for nearly 30 TFLs last year, the linebacking corps is down to just seven more than halfway through this year. Regardless of the reasons for the sharp decline, the boys in the middle need to fix that number if they want to make things happen against the Badgers next week.
Honorable Mentions: The return game, the nerves/livers of Northwestern fans