Northwestern Season Expectations Revisited

Justin K. Aller - Getty Images

Chad, Cory, and Hilary react to the Northwestern loss against Penn State, and deal with adjusted expectations for the rest of the season.

After the Northwestern Wildcats saw their undefeated season go up in flames in Happy Valley, Chad, Cory, and Hilary engaged in a little group therapy to break down Saturday's game and re-assess the season prospects for the 'Cats.

Hilary:

Soooo. Thoughts on Saturday's game.

I'll start. What exactly happened there on offense? It seemed like all of the cool stuff we were doing against Indiana we decided to just chuck out the window. And was our defense really that messed up by Penn State's constant decision to go for it on 4th down? Could they not adjust to that?

Chad:

I put this loss all on Mick McCall and his offensive playcalling. Venric Mark and Kain Colter only got 18 rushes combined....and ran for 96 yards together. Penn State had no answer for stopping Venric and Kain, and after the 1st quarter we should have been running the option with them all day until PSU stopped it. McCall somehow missed what was apparent to every Northwestern fan after the 1st quarter -- today was not Siemian's day, and we should be running it with Mark/Colter until they find a way to stop us (at which point we should be passing with Colter since they're unprepared for it, and Colter is still a damn good passer). As for the defense, they did their job all day, but were out on the field too long because the offense struggled (PSU Time of Possession: 39:17. Yikes.)

Keep in mind -- PSU's longest play from scrimmage was 19 yards. The defense forced PSU to earn every yard, and to PSU's credit, they did. Had we had fresher legs and/or better field position, or had our offense done SOMETHING in the game, Northwestern would be undefeated today.

So I'm disappointed in McCall....but otherwise, I actually have MORE faith in this team than before. We're talented on both sides (see again -- our defense making tackles, preventing big plays all day, having good coverage overall), great at special teams, and have a good/great running attack if McCall sticks with it. It's disappointing we lost, but now I really feel like NU can matchup against any team left on its schedule and, with a good effort, have a chance to win each game.

Cory:

Well, first off: Hilary, ranking Northwestern #2 in the Power Poll? That takes some balls. Well done.

I don't know what happened on offense. Was Kain hurt? Was Venric's jawing a factor in keeping him out? Did Mike Trumpy tell the coaches he ate his Wheaties that morning? The drive with about 4 or 5 minutes to go in the game, where we went Trumpy run, Trumpy run, Siemian crappy pass...possibly the most predictable and worst executed run-run-pass series ever--and I watched Brad Childress' kick-ass offense for how many years.

Either way, the play-calling was atrocious. Against a Penn State-esque defense, I wanted to see Colter at QB and Mark at RB, especially after the optionhad some success in the 2nd half. When Siemian is ineffective and their front seven are getting good pressure, why not put in a QB who can run when things go to hell? The second half in Northwestern drives:

(3rd quarter)

4 plays, 18 yds, 2:20, punt -- 2 touches for Mark, 0 for Colter

11 plays, 71 yds, 4:05, TD -- 4 touches for Mark, 3 for Colter (TD)

Punt return TD -- Mark

(4th quarter)

3 plays, 4 yds, 1:34, punt -- 0 touches for Mark, 0 for Colter

4 plays, 3 yds, :49, downs -- 0 for Mark, 1 incomplete to Colter

5 plays, 16 yds, :52, fumble -- 1 pass to Colter

Yep. After Mark/Colter took 63% of the touches on an 11-play scoring drive and Mark returned a punt for a touchdown, they touched the ball a total of 2 times on the last 12 NU plays of the game. That's unacceptable.

Chad hit the nail on the head with regards to TOP and playcalling--I won't rehash that. I don't feel better about this team, though. I said on Friday that our defense has to pressure Matt McGloin and stop the run, and our tackling was weak on first contact, our secondary was Northwestern'd, and we didn't contain McGloin when it mattered. Nebraska fans, is this nausea of knowing that we could've won the game and just couldn't get a stop when it counted how it felt last year? Ugh.

What do I want to see against Minnesota? A win, for starters. After that, I want to see us put our foot down on the gas and not let up the entire game. Keep calm and run Kain/Venric. Just do it. Do it some more. Keep doing, ad nauseam, until the game is over and the 'Cats win. Furthermore, I want to see us contain MarQueis Gray if he plays. It's crucial. If Shortell goes, he can't McGloin us. I will not stand by as the 'Cats lose to another immobile ginger. I just won't.

Hilary/Chad: does this game change anything in how you view Northwestern in regards to the rest of the Legends Division?

Hilary:

Well first of all, I voted Northwestern #2 because, honestly, nobody in the conference felt right to vote at #2. If I could have put MSU, Nebraska, Northwestern, Michigan, and Wisconsin all at #4 I totally would have. But somebody had to go there. So I might as well have homered it.

Anyway, I don't know if this changes my impression of them in the division. Before this game, I was on the fence as to whether they were "real" enough to actually be able to make it to the CCG, and I'm still there. Yeah, they lost. But they didn't lose so in a way that made me think they were a "fraud" who is incapable of actually living up to winning the division. This wasn't a Minnesota vs. Iowa performance. And, as both Chad and Cory have pointed out, we know what went wrong. The play calling.

The question is, are we confident in Fitz/McCall to recognize and fix that going forward?

Chad:

You're going to just look at the 2nd half? My first tweet in the 1st quarter of the game: https://twitter.com/RevDJEsq/status/254622755553693696

Look, Trevor Siemian is a good QB....young, but good, and could be VERY good one day. But that day wasn't Saturday. Ignoring the 1st drive of the game (where were backed up on our own goalline, and went ultra conservative), this is how often Kain Colter or Venric Mark touched the ball on 1st half drives:

1st Quarter:

Drive 2: Mark (2 touches: 1 reception for 2 yards, 1 carry for 5 yards), Colter (zero touches): 3-and-out punt

2nd Quarter:

Drive 3: Mark (1 touch, rush for 3 yards), Colter (zero touches, one target on incomplete pass): 3-and-out-punt

Drive 4: Mark (1 touch, rush for -1 yard), Colter (zero touches): 3-and-out-punt

Drive 5: Mark (2 touches, rush for 4 yards), Colter (zero touches, one target on incomplete pass): 9 plays, 32 yards, punt (which was muffed)

Drive 6: Mark (2 touches, rush for 5 yards and TD), Colter (in at QB so touched ball every play, one carry for 12 yards): 3 plays, 17 yards, TD

Drive 7: Mark (1 touch, reception for 4 yards), Colter (zero touches): 3-and-out punt

Drive 8: Mark (0 touches), Colter (0 touches, 1 target on incomplete pass): 8 plays, 66 yards, TD pass by Siemian.

Only one drive with Colter as QB with Mark, and it results in an easy TD. 6 drives with Siemian in at QB, 4 three-and-outs, one 9-play 32 yard drive resulting in a punt, and one 8 play 66 yard TD drive.

The obvious solution, and it should have been obvious after Drive 3 above, was that Colter and Mark should have been in the backfield together the rest of the afternoon until Penn State stopped them, at which point Colter would turn to the air (thereby keeping PSU honest).

As for our defense, you're right -- we needed to pressure McGloin. But we did -- he escaped a couple would-be sacks, and even recovered a fumble we forced. Maybe less tired legs (thanks to the offense staying on the field?) might have meant we got a few more sacks. And our secondary was decidedly NOT Northwestern'd -- to me, that means poor coverage on deep balls leading to huge gains or pass interference penalties. We had 1 pass interference penalty, and gave up no plays period longer than 19 yards. Our defense wasn't great, but we did make Penn State earn every yard and score.

As for Northwestern versus the rest of the Legends division, I'm still positive on our team, particularly if McCall fixes the gameplan. It's not like any team in the Legends is looking great right now, and to beat us, you need a lot of ingredients: a front 4 that can get pressure while LBs and secondary play tight zone coverage on passing routes; fast/smart linebackers that can make tackles in space against the option attack; an accurate QB that can sustain drives and is willing to be patient. Does Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Nebraska, or Minnesota scream out to you in all of those regards? I mean, we're gnashing our teeth over a loss....on the road...in a game we led with 3 minutes left in the game....despite having our worst offensive performance of arguably the past two seasons. I'd say we're in GREAT shape compared to Michigan State's offense, Nebraska's defense, or Iowa/Minnesota.....

I for one think McCall and Fitz can and will fix this going forward. I mean, has McCall EVER called two horrible games in the same season? I'm really asking, because I'm not sure I remember it happening...most NU losses were directly on the defense, so McCall has rarely gotten criticism, largely because he's one of the B1G's best offensive coordinators (even if he didn't prove it against PSU).

Cory:

Chad, I agree 100% regarding McCall. I don't remember a time when I've been upset two games in a row at his playcalling, especially on a situation like this, where he kept the ball out of two players' hands. And yes, you're right--they had to keep running the ball, but what baffles me about the second half was the fact that you have an 11-point lead in the 4th quarter. Put your horses on the field, on the road, against a decent team, and run them into the ground.

And what I meant by Northwestern's secondary being "Northwestern'd" is not that they played like Northwestern secondaries of old. We were dinked, dunked, and generally murdered by 1000 papercuts--many of the complaints we have heard from teams like Iowa and Nebraska in years past. Penn State flipped the classic Northwestern gameplan on the 'Cats. And it sucked.

Finally, none of the teams you referred to "scare" me defensively. Sure, Michigan State has shown they can be good...but they didn't look it against Indiana. I don't buy Iowa yet. But it rests on McCall and Fitz to keep the gameplan going and keep their foot on the gas the whole game. We still need to outscore teams, because our defense still is not a world-beating unit. And that's generally how you win football games.

Chad:

OHHHHHH, you mean PSU "Northwestern'd" our secondary by killing us with accurate, ball-control passing that moves the chains?

Yes. Definitely. Ouch....I can't believe how painful it is, now that I'm on the other side of things.

My final thought -- I think we were all thinking 6-6 or 7-5 for this years' Cats team, based on who we were losing and our questions about talent of new players, etc. Now? 8-4 or even 9-3 seem to be in the conversation/possibilities, and reasonably so given the problems/inconsistencies of our future opponents. If the Cats and the coaches can focus on continual improvement each week and play some complete games in all phases, this season will still end up being a huge plus for the Cats, even though they lost their undefeated mojo on Saturday in Happy Valley.

Cory:

The shitty part? They didn't just Northwestern our secondary. They did it to our entire defense: dominating TOP, pounding away with the run once they wore us down, and just keeping our offense off the field. AND I DIDN'T LIKE IT.

Regarding the ceiling of this team? I look at the schedule, and honestly? The ceiling is 11-1. We'll be underdogs at both Michigans and probably at home against Nebraska. The reality is probably 8-4, losing those three games. But I'm not ruling out 7-5. I don't want to play Iowa. There. I said it. I don't want Vandenberg to McGloin us, and I don't want Weisman to barrel through our shitty arm tackles.

Though I suppose, if I may wax poetic for a moment, isn't that life as a Northwestern fan? The in-game margin for error, even when we're 5-1, is so razor-thin that anything from 6-6 to 11-1 is totally within the realm of possibility, and we're just along for that roller-coaster ride. Living in fear of falling flat on our face isn't fun, but knowing that we have the potential to stun a good team year-in, year-out, and make noise? That's fucking fun, right there. Go 'Cats, beat the Gophers!

Hilary:

It is life as a Northwestern fan. But it's a good life. And the weird part about the Mitten games and Nebraska... I'm not worried. I don't mean that as in I'm totally confident, but after seeing the extremely uneven performances those three teams have turned in so far, I'm not expecting to be totally dominated by them. You guys?

Cory:

Ditto. We'll be in them. I'm not guaranteeing a win or anything, but I wouldn't dare us count of out of any game left, as of today.

Chad:

Agreed on all counts. No team scares me to the point where I think we have no chance (then again, I felt we had no chance of beating Nebraska in Lincoln last year....and look how that turned out). Will we win all of our games from here on out? No, of course not. But barring one of those "everything falls apart" type games, we'll be okay and competitive throughout the rest of our schedule, so long as our coaches and players continue to focus, work hard, and play smart.

And you know what else is great? Looking at our roster/depth chart, and seeing how few seniors there are. We lose Demetrius Fields (WR), a couple good O-linemen (Ward and Mulroe), Arnfelt and Quentin Williams on the D-line, Nwabuisi at LB, Quinn Evans/Demetrius Dugar at CB, and Jared Carpenter at safety. A few big names there (particular the O-linemen, Arnfelt, and Nwabuisi).....but NU will have a lot of key contributors and skill position talent returning in 2013.

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