Northwestern’s defense tried to carry a struggling offense in Madison, but the team wasn’t able to get the job done. Here are the five major takeaways from NU’s defeat at Camp Randall.
The Wildcats refuse to abandon the run game
You would think that when your running backs are consistently getting stuffed two to three yards beyond the line of scrimmage (outside of Drake Anderson’s 31 yard run, Anderson and Bowser averaged about 2.24 yards on 21 carries) that you might look to move away from the run game. However, NU made a clear statement that it would not give up on the run. McCall showed his hand against a good MSU defense, and didn’t stray against UW. NU is going to run the ball, especially on first and second down, no matter how predictable or unsuccessful it may be.
Drake Anderson will play a key role in the offense moving forward
With Isaiah Bowser seemingly healthy, the assumption is that he will be NU’s RB1 in the future. However, in the last two games, Anderson led NU in carries (16 to Bowser’s six against UW and 17 to Bowser’s 13 against MSU) and yards (68 to Bowser’s 10 against UW and 91 to Bowser’s 29 against MSU). It appears that Drake Anderson might be NU’s go to guy.
One logical conclusion is that Bowser is still somewhat injured, and that NU wants to limit his playing time. However, with how good Anderson has been, and with the potential for explosive runs that he adds to an otherwise lackluster offense, Anderson could reasonably be NU’s RB1 going forwards. With Hunter’s knee being a question going into next week, NU will likely have to run the ball a lot against Nebraska. Will Bowser get a majority of the carries, or will we see Anderson continue to lead the pack?
Northwestern’s safeties are very good
It’s no secret that Travis Whillock had a rough game against Stanford, missing a few crucial tackles at the end of the game. With that said, he has found his groove since then. He led NU in tackles against UW with 13, adding on a sack and a tackle for loss. JR Pace didn’t add as many tackles as Whillock, but had a huge interception in the second quarter. As miserable as NU’s offense has been, the defense has been really good. Giving up 10 points to Jack Coan, Jonathan Taylor and the rest of the UW offense is a big deal, and a lot of that can be credited to the play of Pace and Whillock. With Gaz and Paddy being two big name senior leaders of the defense, it often gets lost just how good Pace and Whillock are. However, against UW, they showed that they deserve some significant praise as well.
McCall needs to get creative through the air
NU’s passing game is very bad. There is no other way to put it. Having 5 sacks and 7 QB hurries certainly doesn’t help, so some of the blame has to be put on the OL. However, Northwestern’s play calling has been predictable, and questionable at best. Wisco is loading the box. You have a 5-star QB. Throw. The. Dang. Ball. Johnson threw the ball 21 times, completing 10 attempts for 59 yards. Again, this isn’t all his fault, as outside of a few bad decisions, Hunter actually threw the ball pretty well, but suffered greatly from a lack of time in the pocket and predictable play calling.
When the ‘Cats had to throw the ball they found some success, with Aidan Smith completing 8 passes on 20 attempts, throwing for 99 yards, a touchdown and 1 heinous interception that was the fault of the protection but certainly should not have been thrown. Even in the drive in which Johnson got winded, he was 4-5 with 30 yards. Hunter has shown against MSU and UW that he can throw the ball well when he gets the opportunity to do so. McCall needs to find ways to let Hunter succeed and the offensive line needs to provide Johnson with more time to go through his progressions and make an accurate throw.
NU’s punting game suffers a setback
Kubiuk averaged only 39.6 yards on 10 punts in Madison. While he should get some slack in the fact that 10 punts is a lot, and yardage isn’t the only thing that goes into a punter’s success, 39.6 yards per punt isn’t great. NU’s defense was extremely good, and didn’t let UW punish them for the good field position. Going forward, if NU’s punt game continues to struggle, its opponents will likely have great field position, and it will be hard for NU to limit opponents to low point totals. If NU is going to be able to win games by scoring 10-20 points, special teams will need to be a significant part of the team’s success.