To say things didn't go as planned for Northwestern in its season opener against Stanford is an understatement. The Wildcats (0-1) were outplayed, outcoached, and at times, dominated by the Cardinal (1-0) this past Saturday. The Cardinal avenged their 2015 loss to NU with a 17-7 win to open up the 2019 campaign. The score is only part of the story of this game. The Wildcats couldn't finish drives on offense, missed tackles on defense, committed turnovers, and bad penalties, and looked nothing like last year's Holiday Bowl-winning team.
Early bye weeks can be a disservice for some teams, but the bye week that the Wildcats have this week is much needed. They have some work to do before they get back on the field on Sept. 14 against UNLV. Here are four specific areas that NU needs to improve on before hosting the Rebels.
1. Extending and finishing drives on offense
The Wildcats entered Stanford territory on just four of their 12 possessions. One of those possessions ended in their only touchdown of the game (a John Moten IV touchdown run in the fourth quarter), but the others resulted in a turnover on downs, a sack/fumble, and a missed field goal. In regards to their other eight possessions; the longest drive was 10 plays that covered 66 yards. Northwestern's average drive was three plays long, and eight of their possessions lasted two minutes or less.
In the end, NU totaled just 210 total yards, converted 5-of-14 of their third-down opportunities, went 1-of-2 on fourth down, and averaged just 2.8 yards per rushing attempt. Unlike most spread offenses, Northwestern's version involves ball possession and sustained drives as opposed to quick-strike plays. The Wildcats need to find that offensive spark again within the next two weeks.
2. Reestablish their defense
The Cardinal ran 73 total plays for 365 yards. Eight of their possessions went five plays or more with five lasting three minutes or longer. They tired out Northwestern's defense and took advantage of miscues. The Wildcats only had one sack, two tackles for a loss, one quarterback pressure, and 18 of the 20 players used on defense finished with fewer than 10 tackles.
Missed tackles played a huge role in Northwestern's struggles on defense. The Wildcats don't blitz much but that's something they should reconsider. When they take the field against UNLV on Sept. 14 they need to wrap up better on tackles, get a pass rush going, and play more disciplined defense.
3. Cut down or eliminate penalties
Northwestern isn't a team that commits too many penalties, but against Stanford, the Wildcats were flagged for eight of them which cost them 78 yards. One of which was a crucial late hit penalty against NU defensive lineman Earnest Brown that knocked Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello out of the game. Other penalties either helped extend Stanford's possessions or stall Northwestern's offensive drives. This must change in order for Northwestern to get back on the winning track.
4. Reduce turnovers
This is another area that the Wildcats don't venture into often. They gave the ball back to Stanford on five occasions during the game. Those turnovers came in the form of two interceptions, two fumbles (one of which was returned by Stanford for a touchdown), and a turnover on downs. Taking care of the ball is a must 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.
(Top photo courtesy of @NUFBFamily)