Northwestern Football: Non-Conference Review
WNUR Sports Director Joe Misulonas (@jmisulonas) looks at the good and bad news from Northwestern’s four non-conference games.
Northwestern wrapped up non-conference play Saturday afternoon with a 35-21 victory over the Maine Black Bears. The opening four games for the Wildcats were interesting, to say the least, as the team looked drastically different each week. Here are some thoughts on the 4-0 Northwestern Wildcats.
1. The team is 4-0. Last year, most fans expected Northwestern to lose one of its first four games as it had done nearly every year before. In the past, Northwestern struggled to get out of non-conference play undefeated. The Wildcats were able to get that monkey off their back last season, and continued to do so this year.
2. Double digit margins. Northwestern won each game by at least two touchdowns. While the Cal game did come down to the final minutes, no fourth quarter Trevor Siemian comebacks were needed for Northwestern to win any of these games. Had Northwestern won by three points over Western Michigan, the entire city of Evanston would have panicked and this season’s hype may have dissipated.
3. Turnovers. 10 interceptions through four games. Not to steal from WNUR’s Numbers Guy Jim Sannes, but that’s 2.5 interceptions per game. Has Northwestern been playing the best quarterbacks in the nation? No. But interceptions aren’t entirely about opposing quarterbacks making bad throws. It’s also about defenders positioning themselves well and finishing play when those quarterbacks make ill-advised decisions. Good quarterbacks make mistakes. Braxton Miller will not go four quarters without throwing a ball into good coverage when these two teams play on October 5th. Plus, the defensive line is getting their hands up and batting down every pass humanly possible. This defense may generate some game-changing turnovers.
1. 0-8. Northwestern’s first four opponents are a combined 0-8 (including their losses to Northwestern) against teams in BCS conferences. And some of those teams looked better than the Wildcats in their win. Ohio State, without Braxton Miller, won by four more points than Northwestern did against Cal. Iowa beat Western Michigan by eight (EIGHT!) touchdowns, while NU only beat the Broncos by three TDs. Northwestern didn’t face any formidable during this non-conference. Last year, they beat Vanderbilt and Syracuse, both of whom went on to win bowl games. None of Northwestern’s opponents will make bowls this year (although Maine may make the FCS playoffs).
2. Lack of domination. Northwestern lacked the dominating performance many expected in this non-conference slate. Cal held possession of the ball late in the fourth quarter, trailing by only a touchdown. They were shut out by Western Michigan in the first quarter. Maine netted more total offensive yards in their matchup. The Wildcats rout over Syracuse was supposed to be the expectation for the non-conference schedule, not the exception.
3. No Venric Mark. Mark missing the first four games of the season eliminates the already slim chance he had of being a Heisman finalist. Assuming he’s healthy for the Ohio State game, he will have not seen a snap in a college football game for an entire month, and is expected to be an impact player against one of the best defenses in the country. I’m not saying he can’t do it, and I certainly don’t think playing against Maine this past week would give Mark a remarkable boost in performance heading into Ohio State. But the option attack does require the quarterback and running back to be in sync.If there’s a disconnect between the two, the run game can really suffer. Colter and Mark played all of last season together, but you don’t want Mark to use the first quarter or two to remove the rust during the biggest game of the season. Mark is the biggest playmaker on this offense. They need him 100% to beat the Buckeyes.
Northwestern didn’t dominate their non-conference schedule the way many imagined. Perhaps Northwestern slept on their opponents. It’s hard to get motivated and focused for a game against Maine when you’re two weeks away from playing the no. 2 team in the nation. Maybe the Wildcats are already preparing for the Ohio State Buckeyes and didn’t take these games as seriously as they should have.
The Big Ten as a whole performed inconsistently as well. Michigan “beat” Notre Dame (seriously re-watch some of those late penalties called on the Irish and tell me the Wolverines deserved to win that game), but then struggled against Connecticut. Nebraska lost by 20 to UCLA, Iowa lost to Northern Illinois and Michigan State’s offense looked horrific at times. Minnesota won all four of its games, which may mean they could sneak into a bowl game, and the Fighting Illini beat someone other than Souther Illinois. Besides Ohio State, the top tier of the Big Ten was underwhelming the first four weeks, while the bottom tier pulled out a few surprises. I don’t think we learned anything about this conference the past month that we didn’t know going into the season. I fully expect a team with two conference losses to win the Legends division, which gives Northwestern a chance, even with two tough conference games (vs. Ohio State, at Wisconsin) to start the season.
It’s hard to judge a team based on non-conference games. Last year, I was unimpressed by Northwestern’s first four games. Blowing a double digit lead against Syracuse, anemic offense against Vanderbilt, and an inability to get the ball into the end zone against Boston College all led me to believe my preseason prediction of 7-5 would prove accurate. And we all know how the Wildcats ended up.
I’m not going to make any rash judgments on this team based on these four games. They’re 4-0, and that’s what’s important.
We won’t truly know what to expect from this team until October 6th.