In likely the final game Northwestern will be favored to win for the remainder of the season, the ‘Cats dropped their third in a row, falling to 1-3. After conceding 10 straight points to Miami in the latter half of the fourth quarter, the ‘Cats lost 17-14 on Saturday in embarrassing fashion. Here are five things we learned from NU’s final non-conference game:
We’re a long way from Dublin
If it wasn’t clear after last week, Northwestern solidified that the team it was in Ireland a month ago is far from the one that has taken the field in Evanston these past three Saturdays. Quarterback Ryan Hilinski boasted a 79.2 QBR against the Huskers, but has since had an average QBR of merely 40.26 against relatively weak opposition.
It should not be understated that these losses don’t fall entirely on Hilinski by any means, as the Wildcats have struggled mightily on both sides of the ball. Against teams the ‘Cats have more talent than (with the Blue Devils being the only arguable exception), they have been beaten in a fashion that’s looked anything but fluky. Week Zero is 3,600 miles in the rearview, with the only hope for NU fans being that the change of scenery at State College will provide Northwestern the same spark it showed on foreign soil.
The defense showed up
Although it’s difficult to call Northwestern’s defensive performance on Saturday impressive, considering the 66-yard rush they allowed at a pivotal time in the game, NU looked solid on that side of the ball. The three turnovers from the ‘Cats certainly didn’t help O’Neil’s unit, but the pressure coupled with the secondary made the RedHawks essentially one-dimensional, allowing just 62 yards through the air.
They’ll certainly have their toughest yet against Penn State, but their performance could give them something to build on as they prepare for more dynamic and talented Big Ten offenses.
No clear cut answers
It’s of course customary in college athletics to put forth rather generalized solutions in postgame press conferences, but when coach and quarterback alike claim the team looks entirely different in practice than on gameday, something’s got to change. For a coach that implores fans to support Northwestern at Ryan Field, reacting to these last two weekends like they were just any other Saturday comes off as painfully oblivious and disrespectful.
Now we don’t know what is being said in the locker room, but after the ‘Cats lost in a multitude of ways in their last three, a path to substantial improvement seems unclear. Other than fumbling nine times through four games, Northwestern’s miscues have come in all phases of the game, making it difficult to emphasize a specific weakness.
Undisciplined and unenthused
Coming off an embarrassing loss to SIU, the ‘Cats had every reason to be motivated for what’ll likely be their only night game at Ryan Field. Now I’d be ignorant and remiss to sit behind this keyboard and say that Northwestern wasn’t giving effort Saturday. However, when cornerback Cam Mitchell says postgame that “guys just gotta want it,” a bit of concern seems warranted.
The team looked demoralized and sluggish against the RedHawks, and after such a dreadful start to the year and a treacherous Big Ten schedule ahead, the ‘Cats will need to rally together to give themselves any chance of winning any games the rest of the way.
It *seemingly* can’t get any worse
A bright spot about playing in the Big Ten after the start to the season Northwestern has had is that the ‘Cats will compete against some elite level of competition, headlined by the Ohio State Buckeyes on Nov. 5. With bowl eligibility seeming all but impossible for the ‘Cats, having a difficult schedule should allow Northwestern to play loose and possibly be underestimated.
It seems that any game the ‘Cats win will be an upset, and being able to play elite competition on a national level should bring some energy to the locker room, regardless of how ugly their record gets.