Saturday’s 21-7 loss certainly encompassed more negatives than positives. Northwestern’s back seven defensively was just outclassed for an entire quarter, though the defense actually played pretty well the rest of the way. Outside of Flynn Nagel, receivers struggled to really create separation and make tough catches. The offensive line had problems before and after their tackles got hurt. Each of those concerns are valid. But despite a wholly unappetizing loss, the season is far from over.
This should seem relatively obvious to most of you, but Northwestern’s overarching goals this year have nothing to do with non-conference matchups. Both internally and externally, the biggest realistic expectation for this program in 2018 is a Big Ten West title. And though some issues were exposed last week by the Blue Devils, the game’s result only really mattered as a confidence builder, or maybe for those of you who harbored the delusion that Northwestern would seriously compete for the College Football Playoff this year.
Unless the Wildcats finish one win short of a bowl this year, in which case the season would have been a negative with or without a Week 2 loss, this Duke game should be looked at as a speed bump. It’s not catastrophic of itself, but Northwestern will have to slow down and course correct from it. Luckily, a matchup with Akron provides the perfect opportunity to do so.
Over the first two weeks, the running game and run defense have had significant success. Through the air, it’s been a different story. Regardless of who is playing quarterback, they will need to receive more time from the offensive line and more separation from the receivers, and the secondary has to cut down on the number of big plays they have allowed.
If Jalen Brown and Solomon Vault, who we still have heard no updates on, continue to sit, the Wildcat receiving corps will need to find at least one consistent threat over the top to put the thought in the heads of Big Ten defenses. A veteran-laden Akron secondary provides a good opportunity for Bennett Skowrownek, JJ Jefferson, and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman to show that at least one of them is capable of consistently completing deep routes against solid coverage. Skowrownek has shown flashes in the pass, Jefferson has the speed to get it done, and RCB’s route-running has looked near impeccable in his young career. Now, it’s time for them to put it all together.
The offensive line may or may not be fully healthy by Saturday. Regardless, it’s high time they start putting things together. With Thorson’s mobility seemingly limited both in terms of scrambles and designed runs, the line needs to find a way to protect him from the talented defensive lines that will be coming to town in a matter of weeks. Again, Akron should serve as a solid tune-up in that regard. If they stick to their blueprint and keep the pocket clean while getting everybody fully healthy over the bye, this is a group that could regain some confidence going into their clash with Michigan and Rashan Gary.
Greg Newsome II and Montre Hartage have each impressed at points over the first two weeks, as have JR Pace and Jared McGee. But the four of them have combined for breakdowns a bit too often. Akron runs the cursed RPO like Duke, but tends to tone things down a little. With another capable, mobile quarterback in Kato Nelson and a distinct deep threat in Kwadarrius Smith, the Zips will pose at least some sort of a challenge for the Wildcat secondary. A comprehensive performance would be a confidence-booster for this part of the roster as well, and put some good things on tape entering conference play.
The quarterback situation is up in the air for Northwestern, and many facets of the team struggled mightily for the second year in a row against Duke. But the team played better than it did last year, and a mediocre opponent followed by a bye could be a cure to many ails. The bottom line is, with a good performance against Akron and the return of key contributors during the bye, this team could be able to take down one out of the shaky-looking pair of Michigan foes to open Big Ten play. From there, another Wisconsin upset isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
For as bad as they looked last week, all of Northwestern’s main goals are still in play. As they look to regroup, that’s what the Wildcats should focus on.