EVANSTON — Over the course of his coaching career, Pat Fitzgerald has always tried to have some fun in his weekly press conferences. This year, he’s certainly seemed to take his banter to an extreme. But despite all of the jokes, one moment from last Monday’s presser raised a significant number of eyebrows.
“I think Rashawn [Slater] and the o-line have been outstanding. I don’t look at that group being the issue with our offense at all. I think this is some of the most consistent o-line play we’ve had,” said the longtime Northwestern head coach in response to a question about the group up front. “Our issues and struggles on offense this year have not at all been the fault of the offensive line.”
Despite that praise being given after a performance against Nebraska in which the line allowed just one sack and paved the way for an overall successful performance in the run game, our commenters were not on board. Admittedly, I was taken aback a bit by the effusiveness of Fitzgerald’s comments as well.
And at the very beginning of a largely expected Friday night debacle against Ohio State, it seemed as though the Wildcat head coach would be conclusively proven wrong. Chase Young beat Gunnar Vogel with an inside move for an easy sack on the second play of the game, and the impressive, talented Ohio State front appeared to be off to the races.
But for the rest of the game, Northwestern did not allow a sack. The Buckeyes did record five QB hits overall, and certainly hurried Aidan Smith into a couple of his throws, but overall, facing a clear talent deficit, the offensive line did their job in pass protection. Somehow, though, they were even more impressive in establishing the running game.
When removing the botched punt snap and that aforementioned early sack, the Wildcats managed to gain 175 yards on 45 carries against the Buckeyes. Even with the negative yardage added back in, that is by far the most yards Ohio State has allowed on the ground all year, even if the per carry average was only 3.9.
But the secondary rushing statistics really tell the story. Northwestern did not have a play go for longer than 16 yards all day on the ground, which gives credence to the line’s ability to consistently open holes and get backs to the second level. Meanwhile, in a game with plenty of garbage time, the Wildcats actually rushed more successfully before things got out of hand.
8 non-sack carries went for 61 yards in the first quarter. Things slowed down in the second, but the half overall saw 19 rushes for 86 on the ground. Taking the third quarter into account, the Wildcats had 32 carries for 140 yards in the game’s first 45 minutes.
The rushing attack was far from dominant, but also didn’t only get yards after the game was out of hand. All in all, when the offensive line looks at the tape, they will see at least a value-neutral performance against the 4th-ranked team in the nation.
On the defensive side of the line, things did not go quite as well. Outside of an early fourth quarter Gaziano sack, which ended Fields’ last drive, the front rarely got real pressure on the quarterback. And when they did, they failed to bring him down with any measure of consistency.
On roughly the same number of drop backs as Ohio State’s defense faced, Northwestern’s defense recorded three QB hits, and consistently allowed Fields to escape the pocket. It certainly wasn’t the best night for the pass rush, especially going up against a banged-up offensive line, though its tough to dock them too much against one of the most elusive quarterbacks in the nation.
In the run game, though, the front seven (and especially the front four) did better than you may remember, especially before defensive tackle and run defense linchpin Trevor Kent exited.
Overall, Ohio State went off for an eye-popping 284 non-sack rushing yards on 36 carries. But 137 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, when the game was not only fully decided but, in fact, at the point where backups were in on both sides of the ball. In the first three quarters, the ‘Cats allowed a more manageable 154 yards on 26 carries.
Even that number, though, is misleading. JK Dobbins’ massive 68-yard second quarter gain, which set the table for a key touchdown, provided the bulk of it. And as Fitzgerald said postgame (and as anybody watching the game could see), that run stemmed entirely from missed tackles at the second level, namely a crucial mistake from Blake Gallagher on that huge break from Dobbins. Tough to blame the boys up front for that. If, and I know it’s a big ‘if’, Gallagher makes that tackle to keep it a 10-yard gain, Northwestern actually would have outperformed the Buckeyes in rushing across both the first half and the first three quarters.
Now, I just spent a lot of words while kind of eliding the fact that Friday’s final score was 52-3, which feels like a relevant point. With all my nitpicking and careful analysis about both lines playing their extremely talented counterparts to what was essentially a draw, I haven’t mentioned the rest of the game.
But in essence, that is sort of my point.
The fact is, even against worse opponents, the Wildcats can’t expect too much better of a performance than what they got on Friday. Maybe both sides of the trenches will be able to enforce their will a bit more, but even against Ohio State they did well enough to keep the game there for the taking in other facets.
Northwestern’s red zone defense (fixable, and probably an anomaly) and their passing offense (far from either of those things at the current moment) struggled so mightily that none of the play in the trenches mattered. Some of those problems are explainable simply by pointing out who the opponent was. Some, however, are not.
After the game, Jared Thomas focused on the importance of positive reinforcement, even as Aidan Smith preached about the need to hold everybody accountable.
“If we [the offensive line] feel like, as a group, we are infectious with our energy and our execution, it permeates to the rest of the team,” Thomas said.
But no matter how much execution and energy that group has brought during their seeming resurgence over the past two games, it hasn’t helped the deep-seated problems that are creating the team’s struggles. Infectious energy from offensive/defensive line play sounds great in theory, but that energy doesn’t seem capable of changing the stale playcalling and lack of explosiveness that is becoming ever-more apparent as the root of Northwestern’s 2019 struggles.
And if things don’t turn around soon, any amount of potential energy is going to be sapped by the sheer despair of a long losing streak.