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Film Room: The good and the bad of Northwestern football through two games

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Heading into Big Ten play there have been plenty of positives to extrapolate from, but unfortunately some key negatives as well.

UNLV v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Each week, Inside NU Film Room will allow one of our writers to dive into the highlights from Northwestern’s past games or future opponents in order to give you the quality analysis you need heading into the following week. Without further ado, here is what you should be excited about and what you should still harbor a bit of worry for after the non-conference matchups with Stanfordd and UNLV:

The Good

The legs on Northwestern’s five-star QB

Let’s start on a positive note, especially with NU coming off of a win. When Hunter Johnson or T.J. Green lined up in the shotgun with a three/four receiver set, both players seemed to take advantage of their newfound freedom to roam and scramble in the pocket. Some of the biggest plays on offense thus far have come from the legs of Johnson – who appears to be somehow even quicker and more elusive than anticipated.

Despite an overall ineffective performance in Palo Alto, the transfer showed impressive ability to save broken plays by stepping up in the pocket and taking off down the field.

It’s evident that Johnson still needs to work on his slide, but overall, his running abilities seem poised to bring this NU offense to new heights if he continues to feel comfortable tucking the ball and running.

The read option also seems to be fully implemented back into Northwestern’s offense. Against UNLV, Johnson scored his first touchdown for the ‘Cats, taking full advantage of the defense from a run-pass option set that was rolling the whole game. NU may not be able to go back to its classic Thorson QB sneak from short-yardage situations with the same consistency as it did the past four years, but Johnson’s ability to make sharp reads on the option should be just as effective for the ‘Cats moving forward.

The O-line

One of the biggest takeaways from Northwestern’s home-opener was the excellent play of Kurt Anderson’s new offensive line. After a tough showing at Stanford, the big men up front made Drake Anderson and Jesse Brown look like the second coming of Justin Jackson. To be fair, both backs were elusive and broke tackles when needed, but they had some gaping holes to run through all day long.

The offensive line unit will get a much taller task in handing the Spartans vaunted front-seven this Saturday, but the line certainly showed improved ability coming off the bye week.

The Deep Ball

After the aforementioned rough showing against Stanford, HJ stepped up and made huge throws when needed against UNLV. He illustrated the ability to keep the safeties honest by launching it 30 plus yards even while placing it right in the receivers’ grasp. Overall, he looked much more comfortable and confident in the pocket.

He would have posted a much more impressive stat line if his pass-catchers had actually come down with a couple of his bombs. Either way, his first first TD throw in a purple uniform was a thing of beauty:

One of the more impressive throws of the day came early in the game. On the first drive, the ‘Cats were forced into a tough fourth and short situation. Instead of panicking or exiting the pocket too early, HJ stood in the pocket strong and let the play develop to deliver a strike to the outside to Kyric McGowan. A few plays later, he’d punch it in himself.

The Bad

Tackling

Giving up only ten points on defense against a team like Stanford even while putting together a sloppy overall performance is simultaneously impressive and confusing. The NU defense likes to keep things in front of them, often boasting of their (mostly successful) bend-don’t-break mentality. They did just that in Palo Alto.

More importantly, though, it seemed like luck was on their side a lot of the time. Stanford was only forced into one three and out the whole game, yet they truly only managed one drive of substance.

The majority of the first half seemed to be dominated by Stanford, and a big part of that were errors on the defensive side of the ball: missed tackles prolonged drives and kept the unit on the field for far too long. A few made open-field tackles could’ve gotten NU possession back with a better chance to potentially seize control of the game early on in Palo Alto.

Against UNLV, the struggles against the run continued. The unit was just slower than the Rebels, helping create what Fitz chalked up as “mental errors” along the outside. That lack of focus and execution resulted in the run defense being exposed for the majority of the first half, including this untouched 65-yard score from Charles Williams:

The positive through the defensive struggles, though, has been the unit’s ability to force timely turnovers. Twice while UNLV was driving Paddy Fisher and Travis Whillock came up with huge strips to turn the tide in favor of the Wildcats and bail the defense out. Without their ballhawking ability, the score could have been much different on Saturday.

Ball Security/Drops

In case you missed it, Hunter Johnson didn’t have the NU debut that most would have liked. He finished the game 6-for-17 with 55 yards. On his second pass of the season, he threw his first interception to go along with another interception that came in the third quarter. Although Johnson looked way better against UNLV, he still made showed some questionable decision-making with a very bad interception as he fired into triple coverage with Northwestern deep inside Rebel territory.

Having a rough debut and getting settled in is difficult when the expectations are so high. What makes matters even worse is when you receive little help from your teammates. Dropped passes, especially on momentum defining drives, can be the reason the game is lost.

Some of these passes aren’t thrown to perfection, but with a new quarterback under center, the receiving corps has to make his life easier and make these plays. These are catchable passes that need to be executed for Northwestern to have sustained success on offense. Overall, it’s been a less than impressive two games for Wildcat pass catchers. The unit has struggled to get separation and hasn’t done Johnson any favors early on as he tries to settle into Mick McCall’s offense.

All in all, the mixed bag comes out slightly favorable for Northwestern, especially heading into a matchup with a team who has had more than their fair share of problems in Michigan State. But still, the Wildcats don’t have a huge margin for error as they head into the toughest stretch on their schedule. If they can’t clean things up, Big Ten play will be a rough ride.