The first half of the season is in the books as Northwestern approaches a much-needed bye week. At the halfway point, the ‘Cats sit at 3-3 (1-2 B1G) and are right in the middle of a crowded Big Ten West field. The bye week allows a chance for rest and relaxation (for both players and fans) but it also affords the team an opportunity for some self-reflection ahead of the remaining conference slate.
That internal diagnosis should begin with NU’s most recent game, a 23-20 victory against the Howard Bison. In the postgame presser, Coach Braun told the media “there’s no such thing as a bad win.” And while I agree with that sentiment, Northwestern has a lot to clean up after an FCS team exposed a few blemishes on the ‘Cats’ canvas. Here are five things we learned from Northwestern’s narrow victory over Howard:
The team struggles to put together four consecutive quarters of “complementary football”
Stop me if you’ve heard this story before. The 2023 Northwestern Wildcats had one incredibly strong half of football and one half of head-scratching gameplay that makes one wonder about the whole operation.
On Saturday the ‘Cats were poised and collected early on, cruising to a 16-0 halftime lead as both the offense and defense held up their ends of the bargain. Yet in the second half, the momentum warped as Howard outscored the home team 20-7 and made a nail-biter out of a contest that should’ve been put to bed by the end of the third.
It’s just more of the same for NU, who seemingly has one strong half and one weak half in every contest. In the games against Rutgers, UTEP and Minnesota, the ‘Cats looked sluggish out of the gate before turning things around in the second half. Against Penn State and Howard, the team played inspired in the early frame but eventually ran out of gas. The team has shown spurts of brilliance, but until this infuriating in-game inconsistency is remedied, it’s hard to imagine many more wins on the schedule.
I thought Brendan Sullivan performed admirably on Saturday afternoon, especially under the circumstances. Ben Bryant’s absence was reportedly a game-time decision, thrusting Sullivan into QB1 duties, and he did everything Northwestern needed to eke out the win.
The stats are unspectacular but Sullivan went 13-of-18 for 131 yards and two touchdowns in the air, adding another 38 yards on the ground (which was actually 66 yards if you take out the sack-adjusted yardage, a college football stat-keeping quirk that drives me insane). Sullivan kept the ball out of harm’s way, picking and choosing his spots and not forcing anything that wasn’t there.
Without Bryant or A.J. Henning, Mike Bajakian smartly drew up a conservative game plan for Saturday that prioritized clock management and mistake-free football. Even if the total scoring output wasn’t maximized, I thought Sullivan ran Bajakian’s offense well given the constraints. Mark Saturday down as another successful adventure for Mike and Sully (the extra time in the bye week is really allowing me to get creative with these — a Monsters Inc. reference in an article has to be an Inside NU first).
The offensive line woes continue
Oh man, does this team miss Peter Skoronski or what? The offensive line play has been a consistent concern for the team through six weeks, both in the run and pass game. Saturday provided an opportunity for the group to get some mojo back against an FCS foe.
Instead, the Bison continued the trend, sacking Brendan Sullivan four times on the afternoon. Howard came into Saturday with four sacks on the season across its four games. They doubled that total at Ryan Field. In the run game, the ‘Cats were stuffed twice on downs that were two or less yards away from the sticks. With the likes of Iowa and Wisconsin still on the remaining slate, these vulnerabilities will only become more obvious and exploitable.
Analytics? Not so much
There is something to be said about coaching to the flow of the game. “Analytics” too often fail to account for momentum, personnel or other confounding variables that make a decision more complicated than “the math nerds say to go for it.”
That said, two David Braun decisions stood out as debatable at best to downright dangerous at worst. After scoring a touchdown to go up 22-7, Braun trotted out Jack Olsen to make the extra point to go up 16. A two-point try could have made the game a three-possession contest, and had Howard converted its two-point attempt after a touchdown midway through the fourth, this decision would have loomed large.
Even more curious was the decision to go for it on a fourth-and-three on Howard’s 25 while Northwestern held a 23-7 lead and a field goal would have made it a three-score game. Sullivan was sacked as Northwestern turned the ball over on downs. Braun mentioned postgame that the wind played a factor in the decision, but a 42-yard field goal should have been within Olsen’s range, gusting winds or not.
A.J. Henning’s absence was felt
Outside of Sullivan’s touchdown pass to Cam Johnson, which was a scramble drill on a long-developing play, Northwestern’s offense struggled to test the defense vertically within the structure of Bajakian’s offense. Without speedster A.J. Henning, the offense feels far more condensed and predictable. With the Michigan transfer in the lineup, the geometry of the defense changes with the threat of his quickness. Without him, the bag of trick plays and ways to space the defense is much shallower.
Henning was missed in the return game as well. On the afternoon. Northwestern only returned one punt for one yard and other than a nice kickoff return from Anthony Tyus III, the ‘Cats totaled just 19 yards on their other three returns combined. Luckily for Northwestern, Coach Braun said he expects Henning to return to the lineup after the bye week for Northwestern’s matchup with Nebraska.