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Where Are We Wednesday: Asking a few questions

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These first two games haven’t told us everything about the ‘Cats.

NCAA Football: Indiana State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Have you ever questioned everything?

Sorry, “everything” is a bit broad. I’m not asking if you’ve ever suffered from a mid-life crisis of some sort (if you have, I hope you’re doing better now). Rather, I’m inquiring about whether you, the reader, have ever had so many questions about one specific thing in particular that you can’t quite form an opinion on it.

That’s exactly where we should all be with Northwestern football. We’re not questioning everything, per se. Instead, we just haven’t been able to come up with fully-informed opinions yet. They’ve left too many questions unanswered.

What’s that? You disagree? That’s fine, but consider the obvious: the Wildcats have played just two games this season, one of which came against an FCS opponent who, truthfully, posed no real test to the ‘Cats, in hindsight. Sure, their loss to Michigan State was not at all pretty, but after taking care of Youngstown State 42-14, the Spartans are beginning to look like they’re going to outdo every projection made about them this past offseason.

If we truly dig deep and break down Northwestern’s loss to Michigan State... things look ugly, at least defensively. You’ve likely already heard — and don’t care to think — about Kenneth Walker III’s torching of the Wildcats’ defense. The Wake Forest transfer scampered for 264 yards and four touchdowns on just 23 carries, including a 75-yard TD to open the first possession of the game.

On top of allowing that monstrous performance, the ‘Cats simple weren’t able to prevent the Spartans from converting efficiently. Sure, quarterback Payton Thorne threw for just 185 yards and one touchdown, but he converted on multiple key third downs to keep different Michigan State drives on their feet. By the end of the game, nearly everyone began to panic about the state of Northwestern’s defense.

Of course, the one bright spot of that game was the performance of Hunter Johnson. With the ‘Cats failing to get the run game going — due in part to Evan Hull dealing with a nagging leg injury — Johnson completed 30 of his 43 passing attempts for an impressive 283 yards and two touchdown. His performance, while it didn’t accompany a win, silenced most doubters who were questioning whether or not he could compete after a horrid 2019 season.

After their opening loss to Michigan State, one that further worsened Pat Fitzgerald’s September record, the Wildcats began preparations for the Indiana State Sycamores. As previously mentioned, the Sycamores are an FCS team, and should have been one that the Wildcats took care of business against with ease.

Early on in the game, it looked like that would be the case. Northwestern got off to a hot start behind the full return of Evan Hull, who’s first quarter score and impressive play on the ground helped put the Wildcats up 14-0 at the end of the first 15 minutes of action. Hull would end up finishing with 22 carries for 126 yards and two touchdowns, providing a refreshing change of script following the run game’s poor play in the previous week.

However, Hull was pretty much the only bright spot to come from Northwestern’s offense against Indiana State. While he performed well against the Spartans, Johnson regressed significantly against the Sycamores, completing just nine of his 16 pass attempts for 66 yards, one touchdown and one interception (which was caused by him being hit as he threw). How he regressed this much is a mystery, but it’s definitely something that must be answered for going forward.

The Wildcats’ game against Indiana State should have been a beatdown win from start to finish. Instead, Northwestern’s offense, aside from its play in the first quarter, looked sloppy and lazy. Luckily, the game still resulted in an 18-point victory for NU, due in large part to the impressive play of Northwestern’s defense.

When the ‘Cats’ offense regressed, their defense progressed mightily. While they were dominated from start to finish on the ground by Michigan State, the ‘Cats ceded just 31 rushing yards on 22 attempts to Indiana State, and largely stifled their offense entirely outside of a late fourth quarter score.

It was almost as if offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian told defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil that he would take the blame for this week’s poor playcalling and preparation. The two practically swapped places in terms of how their units performed. While seeing the defense perform well in week two was reassuring, their performance came against Indiana State, which leaves the question of how they’ll now perform against better competition later in the season.

Perhaps the worst part of these first two weeks is the fact that we won’t learn much more about the ‘Cats, barring a loss to a lesser opponent. This Saturday, Northwestern travels to Durham to take on Duke, a team that went 1-9 in 2020 and just lost to Charlotte. On Sept. 25, the ‘Cats return home to Ryan Field to take on MAC opponent Ohio, a team that currently sits at 0-2. Unless the Wildcats lose to one of these teams, or win in very unconvincing fashion, we probably won’t know enough to make complete judgments. Their non-conference schedule just isn’t very impressive.

Overall, it’s unclear where the ‘Cats are headed this season. They could be a team that wins six games, they could win eight, they could win the Big Ten West (though that’s ultimately unlikely). In the end, it’s fair to make some assumptions about this team, but making complete judgments would not be a good thing to do.

We can’t be questioning everything just yet.