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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s streak-breaking Malört Bowl victory

The Wildcats are finally back in the win column. Here’s what it means.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Northwestern Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

After seven consecutive losses, all in Big Ten play, Northwestern (2-8, 0-7 B1G) finally got off the schneid by pulling away down the stretch against the UMass Minutemen (1-10). One win, of course, doesn’t change the systemic problems that have manifested within the team over the course of the season, but it’s a weight lifted for both the coaches and the players to see their names on the right side of the ledger for once.

That said, how much did the game actually mean? Let’s break it down with our list of the most crucial takeaways from the Saturday morning slaughter:

UMass is bad

The Minutemen scored the first three points of the game, and were only trailing 7-6 well into the second quarter! Unfortunately for head coach Walt Bell, that was not only the high water mark for the day, but also the moment at which most of the positives had run out. for his squad.

UMass managed to force three turnovers, with two of them coming in that opening stretch, mostly thanks to the sloppy play of Northwestern quarterback Aidan Smith (more on that later). Unfortunately, they turned them into exactly zero points. A week after allowing 498 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground to Army, they let Northwestern rumble for 363 and 5 scores (both season bests by far for the ‘Cats). Hey, at least things improved!

They also outpunted Northwestern, with George Georgopoulos (I will neither confirm nor deny that I just put this in because I wanted an excuse to write out his name) downing three of his six punts inside the 20 and averaging 40 net yards per kick. Meanwhile, in a second straight subpar week, Northwestern’s Andrew David averaged 31 yards per kick without putting any inside the 20. Unfortunately for the Minutemen, the Wildcats outplayed them at literally every other position on the field (except maybe quarterback and kick returner).

Like, really bad

One thing I wasn’t prepared for going into this one as a Northwestern fan was the true level of sloppiness that would overtake things on both sides, but especially for the Minutemen. Struggling to execute is one thing, but back-to-back punts with illegal formation penalties, having a 30 yard kick blocked and returned for a touchdown, and just sort of giving up on a reverse halfway trough a play at one point combine to create something else entirely.

This team was outmuscled and out-techniques, especially in the trenches, and that wasn’t a surprise. The magnitude of the success Northwestern had on the ground may have been a bit shocking, but all in all, fans on both sides mostly expected that part of things going to plan. The Minutemen committing eight penalties to the zero of the Wildcats and forgetting how to kick the ball off was another matter entirely, and were indicators of troubling program-wide incompetence.

Behind Evan Hull, parts of the offense showed definite promise

Over the past month or so, the offensive line has been clearly the best part of the unit as a whole (not that that’s saying much). Pat Fitzgerald has consistently praised that group, especially Rashawn Slater, and outside of a few breakdowns, they have protected their quarterbacks excellently and done an at least passable job in the run game.

That continued Saturday the way it should have against a lower-quality, overmatched opponent. The men up front opened up gaping holes on just about every play. Hull, the true first year running back, showed a knack for finding the right hole, absorbing contact, and bursting into open space, and his stat line (the best by a Big Ten RB since Ezekiel Elliott in the 2015 national championship) reflects that.

But none of that would have been possible without a dominant performance from an offensive line that, assuming Slater doesn’t go pro, will lose only one member of today’s starting group, and Hull native admitted as much in the postgame press conference. Kurt Anderson’s will have continuity next year, and the chance to become a real force in conference play by building off of what has been a largely impressive effort this season.

Other parts of the offense....did not

Let’s just get this out of the way: it’s not good to complete passes to more members of the opposing secondary than members of your own team when going up against the worst defense in the nation. I think we can all agree on that. Riley Lees may have had a nice day, but Aidan Smith just is not ready to be a Big Ten quarterback right now, and that was clear from some of the head-scratching decisions he made Saturday.

Each of the three turnovers, and the second interception along with the fumble in particular, were inexcusable, especially for a guy who continues to miss big plays with his arm. Honestly, he probably should have had a fourth giveaway were it not for Jared Thomas making a heads-up play on another fumble.

The status of Hunter Johnson is shrouded in mystery, and Andrew Marty still has exactly one career pass attempt: the interception he threw against Ohio State. This team has nothing close to an answer under center, and not just for the next two weeks. If they don’t figure something out this offseason, whether that be fast-tracking Aidan Atkinson, figuring out the Johnson situation, having Smith make significant strides, or something else entirely, it probably won’t matter who the offensive coordinator is next year.

The chance to ruin seasons looms

Northwestern is playing for nothing but spite at this point in the season. Sometimes, that can be a whole lot of fun.

As of now, Minnesota’s CFP hopes remain alive, even after their tough loss to Iowa. If the Gophers win out, they’d be a shoo-in. But their kicking game remains vulnerable, they remain overly reliant on the run offensively, and who knows what could happen on a given Saturday morning in Evanston. A loss to these Wildcats would change the Big Ten West picture in a hurry.

Arguably more important, even though the Illinois Fighting Illini have already officially ended their bowl drought, Pat Fitzgerald and co. will have a chance to make the taste in their mouths turn bittersweet with a season-ending win. If the Wildcats managed to hold onto the HAT, even in the midst of arguably their worst season in 30 years, it would certainly stick in the craw of Illini fans, and who doesn’t love the idea of that?