By Alex Lederman
If you had told me three weeks ago that Northwestern would be ranked today, I probably would have laughed.
Yet here we are. This isn’t some parallel universe or conspiracy theory—the Wildcats have been recognized nationally as one of the country’s best teams.
There is, of course, a lot to like from these first two games. But I do fear we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves with the newly high expectations. After all, the Cats are ranked ahead of Wisconsin, and with Joel Stave looking like a solid QB option and Corey Clement on the mend, they might be even better than they showed against Bama. Do we think the Cats would look as good against the Crimson Tide?
I’m not saying to be pessimistic about NU moving forward. Far from it. But I do think we should be cautiously optimistic.
Here are a few reasons why:
1. Stanford didn’t bring their A-game
This isn’t meant to take anything away from NU’s performance. The defense looked dominant and Thorson had a nice debut. But lost in all the celebration and talk of bowl games has been the fact that Stanford just played a bad football game. Head coach David Shaw never got out of his incredibly conservative gameplan that featured punting on 4th and manageable while deep into NU territory in the 4th quarter. What if Stanford just isn’t that good of a team? What if expectations for the Cardinal were too high entering the season? We’re going to learn a lot more about what Stanford is about after their meeting with USC this week.
2. Eastern Illinois is a bad FCS team
The week before the Cats beat Eastern Illinois, the Panthers lost to Western Illinois 33-5. Jalen Whitlow threw three interceptions in that game. It’s nice that NU had such a strong performance against a bad FCS team, but that should be expected for power five squads.
3. Thorson looks like a freshman
Clayton Thorson’s stat line won’t turn any heads, but it’s free of any mistakes. Ordinarily, I’d say that’s a big positive for a freshman QB and a sign of maturity. But he could easily have three interceptions on the season, and he’s only thrown one touchdown. He’s fleet of foot and has been electric on third down, but if Stanford’s defensive backs had better hands, we might be feeling a little differently.
4. How well can Thorson pass?
The Eastern Illinois game was a missed opportunity to let Thorson throw the football. It was a chance, against lower-level competition, to get Thorson more comfortable passing in a real game situation without a serious threat of losing. Yet the Wildcats repeatedly handed the ball off. I did like that we got to see more of Warren Long and Auston Anderson, but why did Justin Jackson have 22 carries—especially coming off a week where he had 28. If Northwestern let Thorson throw the ball around the yard a little, it could have provided some valuable experience while letting Jackson rest up for Duke.
I can easily make a list of all the great things we’ve seen from Northwestern so far too: a shutdown secondary, unprecedented strength on the defensive line, Jack Mitchell’s powerful boot, and the growth of Jackson and Anthony Walker, among many other things. With such high expectations, though, it’s just as important to recognize the flaws.
The sample size is still small. After NU plays its second power conference opponent on Saturday, we’ll be able to have a more accurate read of what the potential for this team can be.