Northwestern’s offense once again struggled to get started in a close 24-15 loss to Wisconsin. Some players/groups, mainly on the defensive end, had some success, and some continued to struggle. Find out who fills each category:
The Wildcats overcame their early season tackling woes and limited Jonathan Taylor to 119 yards and 4.6 yards per carry, both well below his per-game average, with some well-timed aggression. Northwestern was also supremely effective at limiting yards after catch, with some clutch play keeping Wisconsin from converting on third down throws that didn’t reach the sticks.
In their first three games this season, Northwestern struggled to consistently make tackles, with their defensive backs and sometimes their linebackers looking exposed in the open field, but today’s performance proved that the unit has gained plenty of confidence. Thanks to an aggressive Mike Hankwitz game plan and some key players getting the job done, this defense is starting to look every bit as fierce as they did in 2018.
Downfield pass defense
In the aforementioned effort to limit Jonathan Taylor, the secondary frequently were left in one-on-one situations, where an already injury-depleted group was given a big test. The secondary passed with flying colors, limiting struggling Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan to 113 yards passing over 24 attempts. The Badgers failed to complete a pass of 20 yards or longer, and JR Pace made a game-changing play by picking off one of their few deep shots late in the first half.
4th quarter offense
Down three scores, the Wildcats opened up their playbook. Northwestern became more aggressive with the ball, taking plenty of deep shots. After Hunter Johnson’s early fourth quarter injury, quarterback Aidan Smith stepped in to take over the Northwestern offense, helping lead them to two touchdowns. The Wildcats gained 156 yards in the fourth quarter, completing 12 passes and averaging 4.3 yards per play.
Honorable Mentions: Aidan Smith, #PuntForPoints, Trey Finison’s onside kick, analytics
2 point conversion attempts
Northwestern’s two failed fourth quarter two-point conversion attempts displayed the utter ineffectiveness of this offense as a whole. Aidan Smith struggled for time in the pocket on both attempts, forcing the ball to well-defended players through a shovel pass and via a screen pass. While the concept of going for two in both situations makes sense, the execution on the plays were poor.
Offensive line and pass protection in general
Northwestern left themselves pretty vulnerable on passing attempts, often times leaving only five players to protect the quarterback. Wisconsin countered with safety blitzes, repeatedly sending unmarked men at Aidan Smith and Hunter Johnson, giving them limited time to get the ball off or escape the pressure.
Postgame, Pat Fitzgerald seemed to blame this inability to keep rushers out of the backfield on a consistent failure to shift protection schemes at the line, blaming himself and his coaching staff for not allowing the players to make the necessary adjustments.
Early-down offensive scheme
Northwestern’s play-calling for the first three quarters was largely ineffective. As mentioned above, nearly consistent pressure on the quarterback resulted from repeated early down hand-offs that, unsurprisingly, did not work particularly well.
The Wildcats averaged 0.625 yards per play on their first play from scrimmage for the first eight drives of the game, and were ineffective on second down as well. While they were able to open up the field later in the game, the offense barely even tried to throw the ball down the field in the first half (especially on early downs), and it consistently hurt them.
Honorable Mentions: Mental mistakes, physical mistakes, injuries, Hippo Sets, analytics (sometimes)