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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s brutal Week 4 loss to Michigan State

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The Wildcats weren’t good enough on Saturday. What should that tell us?

Michigan State v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

NU started slow and ended slower on Saturday, with its 31-10 loss looking even worse than the final score suggested. As the Wildcats try to come back from yet another slow start to the season, here are five big-picture things we can take away from the blowout NU suffered in its Big Ten opener:

Lack of offensive creativity is unmistakable

During Monday’s press conference, Pat Fitzgerald harped on his offense’s lack of execution. When he wasn’t attempting to dissect Twitter critics, Northwestern’s head coach pre-empted just about all of his answers regarding perceived struggles from Hunter Johnson and in the run game with variations on “we have to execute better.” But the problems extend far beyond on-field play.

Regardless of whether the excessive running, which Avery did a great job of expanding upon in this piece, or the extreme lack of deep passing, which I will expand upon in Hunter’s Heaves later this week, stemmed from Johnson’s reads, they are symptoms of an issue that ultimately rests at the feet of the offensive braintrust’s unwillingness to think outside the box.

Any offense this bad (dead last in the FBS in passing yards per play, third-to-last in overall yards per play, 126th out of 130 in offensive SP+) and vanilla (multiple former NU players have commented about the seeming inability to run anything besides a deep out on third and long, along with just general bad route design) needs some sort of shock to the system. The same variations on mesh and zone runs up the middle against stacked boxes just aren’t going to cut it anymore, regardless of who is under center.

Tackling is a real issue

This certainly isn’t the first season in which Northwestern has started slowly in the tackling department, but it’s a major problem. With defensive tackle no longer seemingly a significant strength (Alex Miller and Trevor Kent have largely done their job, but it isn’t easy to follow up Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson), open-field plays are becoming more crucial, especially in the run game and short pass game.

Right now, those plays aren’t being made. Whether it be defensive backs allowing too many yards after the catch or linebackers and safeties letting rushers drag a few more yards out of one-on-one situations, the missed tackles and bad angles are costing the Wildcats valuable yards. Especially with the way the offense has looked early, the defense’s slim margin of error means they just can’t afford any mistakes.

Red zone woes are troubling

Even when Northwestern’s troubled offense has managed to work its way down the field, play-calling (speed option on a crucial fourth down, how we’ve missed you) and decision-making/discipline (crucial penalties and turnovers) have plagued them once they’ve gotten into scoring range. While the number of drive-halting turnovers the ‘Cats have committed relative to their overall number shows that an element of luck has been involved, Johnson forcing throws and receivers and offensive linemen making crucial mistakes (drops and penalties) in key situations has led to Northwestern settling for field goals even when they haven’t turned it over.

They’ve scored touchdowns on just four of 11 red zone trips, and have failed to get any points the same amount of times, giving them a 63.64 percent overall scoring rate in the red zone that ranks 116th in the country. And that number includes the garbage-time touchdown against Michigan State! The offense, bad as it has looked, has actually moved the ball decently between the 20s. If they don’t get better at punching it in, though, none of the other potential adjustments will matter.

October can be a new month

Despite all I have said above, there is plenty of time for this team to turn it around. Short-term solutions, as Fitz said in his presser, don’t apply to all of their issues, but they can fix enough of them for this team to become competitive pretty quickly. With a Hunter Johnson confidence boost, more consistency from the defense, and, yes, better execution, a lot of the deep-rooted issues Northwestern faces can be patched over, much as they were early last season.

1-6 is a definite possibility

At the same time, the Wildcats’ schedule does them no favors. Upcoming matchups with Wisconsin and Ohio State aren’t looking too winnable with how those teams have played to this point, and though Iowa and (especially) Nebraska have had their inconsistencies, they match up pretty well with Northwestern overall. If Pat Fitzgerald and his squad can’t find a win in Lincoln over a beatable Cornhusker team in a week and a half, this season could get ugly in a hurry.