After heading into this season with plenty of promise and potential, the Northwestern Wildcats (1-2, 1-0 Big Ten) are currently scratching their heads as they get ready to return to the field after their bye week. The season started with much fanfare with the opening of their new practice facility, followed by the news that senior quarterback Clayton Thorson would be healthy enough to play, and seeing the talent come together. Although there was concern about other positions, the Wildcats were still picked to do well this season. I picked them to go 8-4 in 2018.
The problem with that prediction now is that they have already lost two games that they were expected to win. After opening the season with a hard-fought victory at Purdue (who’s now 1-3), Northwestern proceeded to struggle at home. First, Northwestern hosted Duke looking to avenge last season's loss to the ACC member, but instead Blue Devils quarterback Daniel Jones was more than the Wildcats' defense could handle while the offense managed just one touchdown in a 21-7 loss.
But then things got worse when Akron paid a visit to Evanston last Saturday. The Zips from the MAC entered with a 29-game losing streak to Big Ten teams that stretched all the way back to 1894. This should have been a game for Pat Fitzgerald's team to work out the kinks and get ready for the meat of their conference schedule but instead it turned into one of the biggest upsets in college football this season, if not over the past several years.
A 39-34 Akron victory, which featured 36 second-half points by the Zips, leaves Northwestern sitting at 1-2. Going into the season, the hope was the Wildcats would start 3-0 or at least 2-1, especially considering Duke and Akron were considered two of the easier games on the schedule. Now the reality is Northwestern still needs five victories to become bowl eligible and is staring at a remaining slate that includes games against Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa.
The bye week couldn't have come at a better time for the Wildcats, who have plenty of work to do if they want to make the most of what was supposed to be a successful season. Here are five things that Northwestern needs to focus on if it wants to tur things around on the field.
1. Stick with one quarterback
When Clayton Thorson was cleared for full participation by the medical staff over the summer, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said that he would be on a “pitch count” to start the season. The team has been very cautious with Thorson as he makes his way back from the torn ACL he suffered last December. But the 6-foot-4 signal-caller has proven that he’s fully recovered and that he can handle the workload. So far he’s completed 71-of-116 passes (61.2 percent) for 753 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions. His numbers would probably be bigger if it wasn't for the "pitch count" Thorson is under.
Junior T.J. Green, son of former Indiana and NFL quarterback Trent Green, has been taking the remaining snaps in order to keep Thorson fresh. Green is 20-for-35 as a passer for 169 yards. But Thorson has proven himself to be healthy, and perhaps it is time for Northwestern to let him play a full game. This will give him a chance to develop a rhythm, and be more consistent which should help the offense as a whole.
When you consider that Northwestern has been outscored 46-13 in the second half this year, playing Thorson for a full 60 minutes could change that.
2. Improvement from the offensive line
In addition to four sacks, Northwestern's offensive line has been responsible for 17 quarterback hurries and 16 tackles for a loss by opponents while the Wildcats are averaging a mere 3.2 yards per carry as a team. Poor pass protection can be blamed somewhat for Thorson's three turnovers in the loss to Akron, especially considering all were returned or recovered by the Zips for defensive touchdowns. With tougher defenses ahead on the schedule, offensive line play must improve. Maybe some lineup changes are in order.
3. Improved pass rush
Northwestern's defense has produced a total of five sacks and six quarterback hurries through three games. What's more, the Wildcats have struggled against athletic quarterbacks. The five signal-callers that NU has faced thus far (Purdue’s Elijah Sindelar and David Blough, Duke’s Daniel Jones and Quentin Harris, and Akron’s Kato Nelson) have combined for 751 passing yards, 70 rushing yards and have been responsible for six total touchdowns. That's not promising when you consider who's left on the schedule.
Michigan’s Shea Patterson, Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Nebraska’s Adrian Martinez (when healthy), all pose threats as either a passer and/or runner, and those are just the first three quarterbacks lined up to face Northwestern. The Wildcats will need to figure out a way to generate more pressure, especially if their offense can't get on track.
4. Cut down (if not eliminate) penalties and turnovers
While the numbers haven’t been too glaring these self-inflicted mistakes have caused problems. The Wildcats have committed 11 penalties, which have cost them 111 yards. Some of those penalties have stalled drives on offense, while also giving opponents good field position. NU also has coughed up the ball five times with three of those getting turned into 19 points by Akron. These are mistakes that can easily be cleaned up to some degree.
5. Reinvest in the running game
This part of the offense was changed dramatically when Jeremy Larkin announced on Monday that he was retiring from football due to a neck condition that will prevent him from playing.
The sophomore running back was fourth in the BIg Ten with 346 rushing yards and tied for second with five touchdowns on the ground. Larkin's 4.8 yards per carry really stood out when you consider as a team, Northwestern is averaging 3.2 yards per rushing attempt. He was able to find holes where there weren't any and he displayed an ability to avoid would-be tacklers.
Given Thorson's limited usage and the offense's overall inconsistency, Larkin had been the team's MVP to this point. He was averaging a workman-like 20 carries per game before Monday's announcement.
With Larkin out of the picture the Wildcats will lean on junior John Moten IV, senior Chad Hanaoka, sophomore Jesse Brown, along with freshmen Isaiah Bowser and Drake Anderson to keep the ground game intact. Northwestern needs to keep teams honest by running the ball frequently moving forward.
— 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.