By John Beers
While most people around the Northwestern football program came away from last Saturday’s win against then #21 Stanford with a sense of elation and excitement, don’t necessarily count head coach Pat Fitzgerald among them.
“I thought we had a very average performance on Saturday,” said Fitzgerald at his weekly press conference Monday.
Fitzgerald pointed to things like spotty offensive line play—including issues with high snaps that he called unacceptable—and the decision making of freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson as areas that needed to be address should the Wildcats continue towards their goal of winning a Big Ten Championship.
First up on the Wildcat’s quest for continued improvement is the Panthers of Eastern Illinois. Coming off of a season opening 33-5 loss to the Western Illinois Leathernecks, Eastern Illinois has cemented themselves—in the eyes of many—as the Wildcats’ easiest opponent.
While it’s true that the Wildcats have not loss to an FCS opponent since a 34-17 loss against New Hampshire in 2006, Eastern Illinois is not a team to be overlooked. Despite the lopsided score in their opening matchup, the Panthers actually outgained the Leathernecks by 42 yards of total offense as their defense limited Western Illinois to 3.4 yards per play.
Junior linebacker Seth McDonald was a standout on the Panthers defense, registering 17 total tackles and earning Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors, all in his first collegiate start.
Offensively the Panthers struggled against Western Illinois, as senior quarterback Jalen Whitlow continually turned the ball over. Whitlow came into this season with high expectations after earning a spot on the All-OVC 2nd Team and the OVC All-Newcomer Team in 2014, his first at Eastern after transferring from Kentucky. However, against Western, he was responsible for all five Panther turnovers, losing two fumbles and being picked-off three times.
The poor offensive performance is a continuation of a downward trend that began since Whitlow stepped in to replace Walter Payton Award-winner Jimmy Garoppolo. In Garoppolo’s senior season, the Panthers averaged nearly 600 yards of total offense per game. In Whitlow’s first season that number dipped to 480 yds/gm, and the Panthers barely topped 300 total yards against the Leathernecks.
While a weak offensive team may seem to play right into Northwestern’s newfound strength on defense, the Wildcat’s mindset should still be drastically different than against Stanford.
Eastern Illinois will mark the beginning of a stretch of games where—for perhaps the first time in over a year—the Wildcats will no longer consistently be seen as underdogs. That underdog role is something that seemed to motivate the Wildcats against the Cardinal, so starting with the Panthers they will now have to be fueled by a desire to prove that their dominance in the opening week is something they can maintain against weaker competition
Whitlow and Co. also offer a very different look on offense than the Wildcats saw from Kevin Hogan and the Cardinal’s attack. Where as Stanford’s offense more closely resembles a conservative pro-style attack, Whitlow is a true dual-threat quarterback and the Panthers will look to spread the Wildcats out to take advantage of that.
Overall, the game against Eastern Illinois should represent two different measuring sticks for this Wildcat team. Northwestern should be set out to prove whether or not they can dominate on defense week-in-and-week-out, especially against weak offensive teams.
The Wildcats will also look to use this game to provide more competition for those hoping to solidify roles within the offense, as Coach Fitz stressed the need to play more players on the offensive line as well as get more production out of his wide receivers and superbacks.