The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: Week One
In the season’s first “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” WNUR’s Nick Scoliard gives freshman playmakers Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault high marks, but calls for improvement at the line of scrimmage and in the huddle.
After taking 24 hours to think about Northwestern’s season-opening loss to Cal, I feel worse than I did right after the game. I wrote in the recap it could have been worse, and it could have, but looking at the schedule, a bowl game now seems harder to reach than we previously thought, as NU now must win two of their three games against other average Big Ten West teams: at Minnesota, home versus Nebraska, and at Iowa. Instead of looking ahead too quickly, let’s dissect the game and find out what to expect for the rest of the season, and where the Wildcats need to improve. Let’s start with the positives.
The Freshmen: I wrote this in the recap, but Justin Jackson and Solomon Vault will be big contributors on offense as the season goes on. Originally many thought Treyvon Green and Stephen Buckley would start and Warren Long would come in when needed. Jackson and Vault are good players, but many, myself included, thought that Fitz would redshirt them as he usually does to give them a year to learn and grow. But it appears these two are ready to take the field, and Fitz’s confidence in them spoke volumes. Jackson was ranked as the 14th best running back in his recruiting class, and looks like option 1a or 1b in the running game along with Green. Vault was recruited as an athlete, so they’ll bring him in either at running back or slot receiver. Northwestern attempted a screen pass to Vault in the second quarter but the defense broke it up. Expect to see these two youngsters contribute more to the offense in the coming weeks.
Kicking: All eyes were on Jack Mitchell after the sure-legged Jeff Budzien graduated. When Budzien was on the field, Wildcat fans sighed with relief and celebrated what was sure to be an excellent field goal or kick off. Mitchell has big shoes to fill, and he filled them adequately yesterday. He wasn’t tested very much – just one field goal of 24 yards- but he made it, and his kickoffs were either touchbacks or deep in Cal territory. He wasn’t perfect, and some of his extra points sailed lower than they should have, but for a first game replacing the two-time Big Ten kicker of the year, Mitchell did what was needed.
Play calling: Another season, another chorus of calls for Mick McCall’s departure. In past years, playmakers like Colter and Mark used their legs to make big gains out of broken plays, bailing out the offensive coordinator in the process. Siemian is great when given a spacious pocket and can also scramble if the pocket disappears, but it doesn’t seem like he is the type of playmaker McCall can rely on. Siemian requires precise West Coast-esque timing, which he did not receive on third and fourth downs, when Northwestern over-thought the situation and ended up calling cookie cutter plays that fell right into the Cal defense’s hands. Fitz may be too attached to McCall to fire him, but if the poor play-calling continues, the Evanston community cries for McCall’s dismissal will only get louder.
O-Line: One would think the Northwestern O-line would improve their performance in 2014, given several returning starters from 2013’s disappointing group of blockers had a full off-season to get better and stronger. Unfortunately, the absence of Colter and the option shine on a spotlight on the unit, which must protect Siemian in order for the offense to work. They failed to do this Saturday, and their run blocking wasn’t great either, as Jackson, NU’s leading rusher, only found success when he used his speed to get around the edge or through the collapsed line. The O line struggled when it was needed most (just like the play-calling), and they must improve, especially with the less mobile Siemian at QB.
D-Line: It doesn’t get much better on the other side of the ball. NU’s pass rush was just ok, getting two sacks, and intercepting Cal’s freshman QB Luke Rubenzer. They also defended screen passes well. But this unit is still in the ugly category, and for good reason. Tyler Scott’s absence was very apparent and the pass rush suffered because of it. Run stuffing was even worse, and Sean McEvily’s season-ending injury leaves a hole at defensive tackle which the Wildcats have not yet filled. Cal ran up the gut with success all game long, gaining most of their 114 rushing yards between the tackles. Both lines had awful games, and will need to improve greatly as the season progresses.