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Five key takeaways from Northwestern’s loss to Michigan

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There aren’t a lot of positives headed into Halloweekend.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Admittedly, there wasn’t a ton to be learned from that game on Saturday. Everyone knew that Michigan is good, and that Northwestern is very much not so, leading to a rather predictable result. However, that doesn’t mean the whole performance was done in vain, as there was still plenty to glean from the sixty minutes of action. Here’s five things we learned from Northwestern’s 33-7 loss against Michigan that dropped them to 3-4 on the year.

The problems on offense won’t be fixed this year

After a solid offensive showing against Rutgers that featured a few chunk runs and big plays through the air, Northwestern simply could not put anything together in Ann Arbor. From poor blocking to missed handoffs and misthrows galore, the issues on offense ranged far and wide against Michigan. Granted, the Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country (it was ranked No. 12 in defensive FEI headed into the game), but some of the problems that presented themselves on Saturday fell more on the ‘Cats and their inability to execute.

The larger issue beyond not putting points up on the board was that it was the same issues plaguing Northwestern all year that hurt them again on Saturday. The offensive line continued to get consistently beaten at the line of scrimmage, Ryan Hilinski missed a number of throws and the running game continued its season-long struggles (outside of Evan Hull’s 75-yard run and Marcus Cisco’s garbage time runs at the end of the game, the ‘Cats picked up a total of 7 yards on the ground).

With defenses like Wisconsin and Iowa left to play, there’s simply not a lot of light at the end of the tunnel for the offense to improve given their current level of play and personnel.

Charlie Kubhander should be benched

With 7:59 remaining in the third quarter against Michigan, Northwestern’s sixth all-time leading scorer had an opportunity to make the contest a one-score game with a 39-yard field goal. On a cloudy but relatively still day in Ann Arbor, the kick sailed wide left, resulting in Kubhander’s third missed attempt this year from under 40 yards out. It also put his field goal conversion numbers for the season at a dismal 4-for-9.

While the kick likely would not have changed who won the game, it’s a kick that could have changed the trajectory of the contest and one that should have been made by any starting kicker for a Big Ten school.

Kubhander has had a long career with the ‘Cats that has featured a lot of ups and downs—this is his fifth year as the starter— but he has clearly regressed this season, and the result has been his worst statistical campaign with the program to date. If there are any competent potential replacements in the wings (*cough* Jack Olsen *cough*), they deserve to be given a shot in what is a fitting year to hand younger players opportunities and see what they can bring.

Kurt Anderson has officially been underwhelming in his time at Northwestern

Going into this season, many thought that Northwestern’s offensive line could be one of the team’s strengths. From the outside looking in, the positional group was as talented as it has ever been, and the thought was that with some time under his belt and time for his recruits to mature, Anderson would turn the unit into one of the better ones in the Big Ten.

However, with the season past the midway point, the #TrenchCats have been struggling mightily and are showing no major signs of improvement. The line has been tasked to go against some formidable competition, but their inability to provide adequate pass protection and run blocking for most of Saturday’s game was yet another disappointing step backward. Even in the win against Rutgers, the run blocking failed to open up enough holes to make the ground game a real threat.

This is now Anderson’s third year as the offensive line coach at Northwestern, and while he has had unprecedented success on the recruiting trail, it is time for that success to start translating to better play on the field. The position coach is by no means on any kind of hot seat, but considering his recruiting success, the on-field results have simply been underwhelming.

Northwestern’s defense is getting better

At first glance, giving up 33 points in a football game can only be seen as a negative. But when Michigan’s point total is put in context to the game script and is compared to how poorly Northwestern’s defense has played against previous Big Ten foes, the defensive performance that the ‘Cats put up in Ann Arbor should inspire hope in the fans of the purple and white.

For some significant periods during the game, most notably in the first half, Northwestern was able to embody the “bend-don’t-break” type of play that has been a key attribute of its best teams in the past. The ‘Cats made the Wolverines earn every yard, as Michigan’s field goal drive lasted 16 plays and over eight minutes, and Northwestern’s defense was able to force a fumble at its own two-yard line on the ensuing drive.

As for Michigan’s second-half point outburst, much of it can be attributed to a blocked punt and Hilinski interception that gave Michigan great field position and led to two touchdowns. Northwestern’s defense was also on the field for nearly 40 minutes due to offensive struggles.

All in all, it was a solid defensive performance considering the circumstances. Northwestern didn’t allow many big plays, a stark contrast from earlier contests against Big Ten opponents, and younger players like Bryce Gallagher and Coco Azema made plays that they weren’t making at the start of the year. There are no moral victories, but in a game that featured a lot of negatives, the defensive effort was certainly admirable.

We can assume nothing about how the rest of the season will go (again)

While it is easy to look to the future and try to predict how the rest of Northwestern’s season will go, it is abundantly clear that in the 2021 college football season, anything can happen. Most notably in the Big Ten, in a game that should have been as lopsided as Northwestern-Michigan, Illinois upset then-No. 7 Penn State as a +1000 favorite in nine (!) overtimes. Ohio State murdered Indiana en route to what should be another CFP appearance, allowing the Hoosiers to complete just eight passes (and in Bloomington no less!). The list of crazy things happening in college football goes on and extends far beyond the Big Ten, but the unexpected outcomes of games every week should be a reminder to Northwestern fans that anything can happen. And luckily for Northwestern, a team that has gone through a lot of lows this year, up is the only direction for them to go (right?).