We knew that the Northwestern Wildcats had a tough schedule but we thought that they'd play better than this. In Saturday's 24-15 loss to Wisconsin, the Wildcats (1-3, 0-2 Big Ten) continued to make mistakes, struggled again with consistency and got dominated by the Badgers (4-0, 2-0) even though the scoreboard didn't indicate such.
Northwestern also was 1-3 after the first four games last season but was able to turn it around by going 7-1 to claim its first Big Ten West title in the process. But with a tough road trip to Nebraska on the horizon for this week, followed by home games against No. 4 Ohio State (outscoring opponents 262-43) and No. 14 Iowa (outscoring opponents 134-34) after next week's bye, pulling off another hot streak will be a lot easier said than done.
Northwestern didn't quite learn from its mistakes against Michigan State. Here are my takeaways from last weekend's rude awakening at Wisconsin.
1. The offense is at a standstill
After scoring just 10 points and totaling 265 yards against the Spartans two weeks ago, Northwestern didn't fare much better against the Badgers on Saturday. The Wildcats managed to post 15 points in Madison but gained less yardage (255) then they did against MSU. NU averaged a poor 3.9 yards per pass and an even worse 2.4 yards per carry. The Cats were held to just a field goal through the first three quarters and failed to convert both of their two-point conversion attempts after finally finding the end zone twice in the fourth quarter.
Two more turnovers bring the season's total to 11 (second most in the Big Ten) and Wisconsin turned both takeaways into instant points via a fumble recovered in the end zone and a 68-yard interception return. Pat Fitzgerald's team ranks 121st out of 130 FBS teams in total offense (293 ypg) and 128th in scoring offense (15.5 ppg). The Wildcats need to turn things around, and quickly, with the tough schedule that lies ahead.
2. The defense has had its issues too
The good news is that Northwestern limited Heisman Trophy contender Jonathan Taylor to just 119 rushing yards on 26 attempts. The bad news, however, is that he still scored a touchdown, he averaged 4.6 yards per attempt and even made an impact as a receiver (3 catches, 15 yards). In total, the Wildcats gave up 243 yards to the Badgers, and have now surrendered 580 yards in the last two games combined. NU also continues to struggle with the pass rush (one sack vs. Wisconsin), generating takeaways (just two INTs in their last two games), and defensive back Travis Whillock is the only Wildcat to reach double-digit tackles twice this season (10 against both Stanford and Wisconsin). NU is giving up 319 yards per game, which isn't horrible (seventh in Big Ten, 31st nationally) but it won't matter if the offense can't offer much help.
3. More instability at quarterback
Hunter Johnson's struggles in the aftermath of TJ Green's season-ending foot injury are well documented (48 percent completion rate, 367 passing yards, one touchdown, four INTs, seven sacks). But now there's a chance that Johnson may not be available when Northwestern plays Nebraska this weekend. The Clemson transfer left the Wisconsin game with a knee injury and his status is up in the air, although Johnson was seen on the practice field on Monday. Junior Aidan Smith relieved Johnson for the second straight week and helped spark a late rally when the Wildcats scored their only two touchdowns after trailing 24-3 halfway through the fourth quarter.
In limited action, Smith's numbers aren't eye-popping by any stretch (37 percent completion rate, 137 yards, TD, 3 INTs), but he helped spark the offense put together two scoring drives in a little more than half a quarter against a Wisconsin defense that had locked down the Wildcats up to that point. If Smith does get the start against Nebraska, he has plenty of work to do and will be shorthanded at wide receiver. Bennett Skowronek, who was leading the team with 12 catches for 141 yards, recently underwent surgery for an unspecified injury, so he's out for the foreseeable future.
4. Drake Anderson could be the new Wildcats feature back
Ever since leaving the Stanford game with a knee injury and missing the UNLV game as a result, sophomore running back Isaiah Bowser has managed 49 rushing yards on 19 carries. By contrast, Anderson, also a sophomore, has posted 305 yards and three scores on 61 attempts. He's averaging five yards per carry compared to Bowser's 3.6. Perhaps the Wildcats should stick with Anderson until Bowser is fully healthy. Hopefully, Anderson can provide a spark for this struggling offense.
5. Nebraska is up next
While the Cornhuskers' 48-7 home loss to Ohio State this past weekend was an eye-opener, Scott Frost's team is a much more formidable opponent than their loss to the Buckeyes suggests. The Huskers are sixth in the Big Ten in total offense (435 ypg) and are averaging twice as many points per game (31.8 vs. 15.5) compared to the Wildcats. Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez had a rough game against Ohio State but he's still fourth in the conference in total offense (283 ypg) and has already accounted for 10 total touchdowns. He's a dual-threat signal-caller who ranks in the top 10 in the Big Ten in both passing (1,100 yards, third) and rushing (315, sixth). Defensively, the Cornhuskers have done a good job at getting to the quarterback (15 sacks, tied for third) and have produced 10 takeaways through five games, including six interceptions (tied for second). Northwestern has won the last two meetings with Nebraska with both games needing overtime to be decided.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.