Late in the third quarter, with the Wildcats (1-3, 0-2) somehow trailing eighth-ranked Wisconsin (4-0, 2-0) by a score of just 7-3, it looked as though Riley Lees had found the game-changing play his offense needed to get started, and it wasn’t in his role at wide receiver.
Northwestern had looked downright dangerous all game long on punt returns. When Lees took a solid punt, swung left and then reversed field into nothing but open space, not being dragged down until he crossed well into opposing territory, it looked as though the floodgates had (at least momentarily) opened.
But a flag was on the field. And immediately after a somewhat questionable, certainly unnecessary, essentially 50-yard block in the back call, the Wildcat offense showed exactly why that penalty was so significant. Hunter Johnson took the ensuing snap, never noticed the free blitzer on his blind side, and got absolutely lit up (pictured above). The Badgers scooped and scored, and though a resilient NU team continued to fight back for the game’s duration, they never again crept within a score.
In his postgame remarks, Pat Fitzgerald blamed missed reads and potential checks at the line, mistakes he credited to himself and his coaching staff, for Northwestern’s inability to consistently get a body on every member of the Wisconsin pass rush, most notably on that play and Aidan Smith’s later pick-six.
Though the Northwestern offense was ultimately unable to convert in the big moments, allowing more points with that pair of massive miscues (14) than the defense did (10) across the rest of the game, the overall statistics make things look even worse.
Thanks to two forced turnovers, a successful onside kick and a relentless defensive effort, the Wildcat offense received a whopping 17 possessions yesterday. With those chances, they ran a season-high 82 plays, controlling the tempo mainly because of their counterparts’ ability to get off the field.
But NU couldn’t transfer all of those plays into virtually anything consistent. Despite wearing down Wisconsin’s number one defense down the stretch, the ‘Cats still managed an utterly abysmal 3.1 yards per play.
Wisconsin racked up five sacks and an immense 14 tackles for loss, beating five-man blocking schemes around the outside all day long in pass protection and pinning their ears back against a barrage of first and second down runs. Across their first eight drives, Northwestern gained five yards on drive-opening plays (six runs, two short incompletions) and 16 total yards on ten second down runs.
In fact, outside of an early 31-yard Drake Anderson burst which immediately followed a silly fourth down facemask penalty against Wisconsin to keep NU on the field (and ultimately earn them a field goal) early, the Wildcats earned just 47 yards on 22 non-QB runs throughout the game.
Yet, before Hunter Johnson’s exit due to an undisclosed knee injury, which seemed to occur just after the offense started to open things up out of necessity, Northwestern had run more designed runs than passes against the ever-stout Wisconsin front. When they did throw the ball with Johnson, he rarely took shots down the field, seemingly in part due to fear of lackluster protection, though the few middle-deep throws he did end up making were largely on target.
The offense may have appeared to show new life after its starting quarterback’s departure, but Aidan Smith’s surge can be explained to an extent by desperate play-calling. This season, when the Wildcats have found themselves in dire straits against a team that is starting to get tired and operating in a more prevent-like set up, they have actually managed some success. Against Power 5 squads, they have scored precisely 13 points during the more than 150 minutes that they have been within two scores of their opponent.
But this type of ball movement, though it was welcome, brings more questions. Where was the wide-open play-calling, with slants, deep shots galore and plenty more fun things in the first half? Smith missed his fair share of throws (he finished 8-20), but his receivers and coaches gave him enough chances to move the ball down the field. It sure seems as though Hunter Johnson was not given that same opportunity early on, when things were still within a score. All we can do is wonder what would have happened otherwise.
On the other side of the ball, there’s no such need for wonder. Northwestern’s defense absolutely locked down Wisconsin’s ballyhooed offense, stacking the box to slow Jonathan Taylor and daring Jack Coan to throw over the top, which he was never fully able to do.
After an opening drive touchdown that featured great starting field position and a crucial, highly questionable false start non-call, the ‘Cats allowed the Badger offense to score just three points the rest of the way. They did so by perfectly executing the game plan they were given.
Travis Whillock called Mike Hankwitz a “wizard” postgame. JR Pace opted for “mastermind” as his descriptor of choice. Either way, the veteran defensive coordinator slowed Jonathan Taylor more than any other Wisconsin opponent has been able to for the third consecutive season, and stopped the Badger offense in their tracks in the process.
Coan never fully went after Greg Newsome II (who held up well in the few targets he saw thrown his way) and especially AJ Hampton, who were often isolated down the field. Largely, that’s because by the time Wisconsin adjusted their game plan to take more looks down the field, he didn’t have the time or space to.
Northwestern’s safeties played their best game of the season. Whillock was all over the place, with the front seven doing enough dirty work to clear him and allow him to make 13 tackles, including a key sack. Pace manned the secondary capably, pulling down a massive interception at the end of the first half. It was full domination for the Wildcat defense, who allowed the Badgers a mere 51 plays and only 243 total yards.
But no matter how many times they got the necessary stop, doing enough to turn it over to their offense, it didn’t matter. Especially in the first three quarters, Northwestern’s offense and the braintrust behind it seemed content, in so many ways, to stay stagnant, just like it has for large swaths of the first three contests.
“I don’t think you can have that mindset,” replied Whillock when asked if near-constant struggles on the other side of the ball were starting to weigh on the defense’s minds. “Every time you go out there you just gotta control what you can control....We just need to stick together on the inside, and we’ll be alright.”
The Wildcats can keep telling themselves that as much as they want. And two of the three phases looked ready to drag this year’s iteration of Northwestern football to a bowl game. But eventually, the constant missed opportunities and wasted potential in that third phase of the game will become too much for anyone to bear.