EVANSTON, Ill. — If the Northwestern Wildcats, reeling from a brutal loss to Akron, were to fend off the No. 14 Michigan Wolverines at Ryan Field, they needed to punch their visitors in the mouth.
As 14.5 point underdogs, the Wildcats did exactly that, ambushing the vaunted Michigan defense with sharp execution offensively to take a 17-0 lead.
From there, Northwestern held for as long as it could. It was almost enough.
What’s that saying about horseshoes and hand grenades again?
A Karan Higdon five-yard touchdown run with 4:06 remaining in the fourth quarter capped a Michigan comeback that felt almost imminent as soon as Northwestern opened up a three-possession lead. The Wolverines (4-1, 2-0 B1G) scored 20 unanswered points and left Ryan Field with a 20-17 victory over a scuffling Northwestern (1-3, 1-1 B1G) squad.
Northwestern lost ugly in a game that it needed to win ugly. Familiar problems again reared their unsightly heads, namely an offense that was feckless from the moment John Moten IV powered into the end zone with 12:56 to go in the second quarter.
“We gotta fight, we’re up 17-0 and we didn’t finish the job,” quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “The past few weeks, that’s been the story. We’re up, and then the second half, we don’t finish the job.”
The Wildcats had managed 145 yards on three drives to that point. It could only eke out 57 total yards for the rest of the game. Only 64 total yards came on the ground after subtracting sacks. And after starting the game 8-of-9 for 94 yards, Clayton Thorson went 8-of-18 for 80 yards in the game’s final three quarters. He was sacked six times. Michigan’s vaunted defense was as good as advertised, but only after it spotted Northwestern 17 points.
“We knew we were going have to play very efficiently,” Pat Fitzgerald said after the game. “We were going to have to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and we set ourselves kinda behind the chains in third and long situations. We kinda played right into the mousetrap.”
The Wildcats have scored 13 points in the second half this season, and plenty of questions were posed to Fitzgerald and Thorson about adjustments. Execution was the problem for Northwestern, according to Fitzgerald:
“I think we made really good adjustments and it’s just that, quite frankly didn’t work. ...We just gotta find a way to help our guys make plays. It starts with us, we gotta do a better job as coaches.”
As Northwestern’s second-half offense scuffled for a fourth consecutive week, Fitz echoed the importance of finding a way to put its players in a better position to succeed. Still, it’s hard to envision a panacea for Northwestern’s second-half ills.
The offensive line is one place to start. Over the final three quarters, the battle in the trenches looked more like the turnstiles at the Central Street Purple Line station.
“We’ve got some pups in there fighting and I’m proud of them for going in there but we’ve got to do a better job of coaching them and getting them to be consistent, because it looked like fundamental technique issues today,” Fitzgerald said.
More importantly, the Wildcats fell behind schedule on offense too often, forcing Thorson into the black hole that is third-and-long. And nowhere to be found were creative play calls, like the screen that sprang JJ Jefferson for a 36-yard scamper in the first quarter.
The brunt of the offensive struggles was felt by Northwestern’s defense. As the Wildcat offense dithered for the better part of three quarters, it only felt like a matter of time until Michigan re-took the lead.
At the least, the NU defense made the Wolverines wait. The unit stood up strong for the majority of the game, holding Michigan to field goals twice when the Wolverines were in the red zone. The Wildcats got Michigan quarterback Shea Patterson out of his comfort zone, as the Wolverines managed only 65 yards through the air in the first half.
NU also had to account for the losses of two starters to injury, Nate Hall and Greg Newsome II.
While Northwestern’s defense held its own by all accounts, it wasn’t able to force a turnover or flip the field in the second half to help out the offense.
“We need to get a turnover. Bottom line,” defensive end Joe Gaziano said. “I think if we turn the ball over and give the offense another drive, we have a good chance to win this game.”
At some point, Thorson and the rest of Northwestern’s offense will need to be able to prove Gaziano right.
And after watching Thorson get chased around the pocket, after watching NU’s receivers fail to get separation downfield, and after watching the running backs struggle to find any creases up front, it’s clear that schematic creativity, in addition to improved execution, is needed to oil the creaky gears of Northwestern’s offense.
A fast start, followed by an anemic finish as Northwestern slowly bleeds out. Without change, that may well be the script the Wildcats continue to read from in 2018.