The defending Big Ten West champion Northwestern Wildcats opened conference play on Saturday with a loss, falling 31-10 at home to Michigan State. The victory snapped the Spartans' (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) three-game losing streak to the Wildcats (1-2, 0-1). Michigan State dominated the game on both sides of the ball, as NU managed just 2.8 yards per play. Besides ending the winning streak against Michigan State and dropping below .500, the loss exposed some weaknesses for the Wildcats that have already shown up in previous games this season.
On Saturday against the Spartans, Northwestern struggled to move the ball on offense, looked lost on defense, and made mistakes, which usually isn't a staple of this team under head coach Pat Fitzgerald. If the Wildcats don't get themselves together ASAP, any chance of repeating as division champions could disappear before we reach the end of October. Northwestern's next four games are at Wisconsin, at Nebraska, vs. Ohio State, and vs. Iowa. The Badgers and Buckeyes are both in the top 10 of the polls while the Hawkeyes are at No. 14. Wisconsin (3-0) boasts Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor (440 rushing yards, FBS-leading 10 TDs), Nebraska (2-1) is averaging nearly 500 yards per game, Ohio State (4-0) has outscored the opposition 214-36, and Iowa (3-0) is seventh in the country in scoring defense (10.3 ppg).
After picking up their first win of the season last week against UNLV, the hope was that the Wildcats would be able to build off of that headed into Big Ten play. But Michigan State put an end to that, re-exposing the same flaws that were initially revealed in the season-opening loss at Stanford. Northwestern needs to clean things up in a hurry and here are four specific areas of concern.
1. Hunter Johnson is still adjusting to this offense
The Clemson transfer completed 15-of-26 pass attempts against Michigan State, but he only totaled 88 yards with the longest completion going for 20 yards. He also was sacked twice and threw an interception in the second quarter that led to a Michigan State touchdown. Johnson was eventually replaced by Aidan Smith, who didn't fare any better (4-for-11, 38 yds., 2 INTs). On the season, Johnson is only completing 48 percent of his passes for 220 yards, a TD, and four interceptions. He also has been sacked four times and seems to lose confidence when a defense is able to get to him. Johnson needs to become more efficient, find his stride, and build some confidence, which may be easier said than done given the Wildcats' upcoming schedule.
2. Isaiah Bowser is stuck in neutral
The sophomore running back, who was 2018's breakout star, missed last week's game against UNLV due to a knee injury that he sustained against Stanford. It didn't look like he was still hobbled by the injury against the Spartans, but MSU did keep him in check as he finished with 39 rushing yards, 21 of those yards coming on one carry. For the season Bowser only has 93 yards on 23 attempts, meaning he's averaging four yards per carry. Redshirt freshman Drake Anderson (45 att., 237 yds., 2 TDs) has done a good job with increased opportunities but Northwestern really needs Bowser to find his rhythm to get the most out of its running game and to take pressure off of Johnson.
3. Can the defense make a stop?
Right now the answer to that is no. Aside from allowing Michigan State to put 31 points on the scoreboard, Northwestern gave up 337 yards of offense and 19 first downs. Missed tackles were an issue again and Spartans quarterback Brian Lewerke had 228 passing yards, three touchdowns and was sacked just twice. The Wildcats are surrendering six yards per play this season, have allowed opponents to convert 40 percent of their third-down opportunities (worst in the Big Ten), and have nine sacks through three games. Some of these numbers will have to change and soon considering the caliber of offenses that are coming up on the schedule.
4. Mistakes continue
Northwestern committed three more turnovers on Saturday (all INTs), giving them eight total on the season. The Wildcats have produced six takeaway, giving them a minus-two turnover differential, which ties them for 10th in the Big Ten. Additionally, NU has had 19 penalties accepted against them for 170 yards. Fundamentals and discipline usually aren't concerns when it comes to Fitzgerald-coached teams but these Wildcats have been sloppy and mistake-prone in the early going. If they don't clean up their act soon, it could wind up being a long season.
— 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.