NUmbers Guy: Northwestern ekes out win over Ball State
It wasn’t pretty, but the Northwestern Wildcats came out of Ryan Field on Saturday with a win against Ball State. But, a win is a win, and the Wildcats head into their Big Ten schedule undefeated for the first time since 2013. Over the weekend, Northwestern looked good for stretches; during others, the Wildcats looked nothing like the team that started 3-0. So, let’s take a look at the NUmbers behind Northwestern’s 24-19 win over Ball State.
“Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier.” The Northwestern student section said this phrase every time Jackson carried the ball in the second half and with 33 carries in the game, it was heard a lot at Ryan Field. Jackson rushed for 184 yards Saturday, which was a career high and the most for a Northwestern player since Mike Kafka in 2008.
He averaged 5.6 yards per carry against the Cardinals, including a 66-yard run to put the Wildcats in scoring position on a second half drive. The sophomore continues be a mainstay in the offense, churning out strong run after strong run. For the season, Jackson boasts an impressive 118 carries for 516 yards (4.4 yards per carry).
As a redshirt freshman, quarterback Clayton Thorson will certainly go through some growing pains at quarterback this season, which was obvious in the first half on Saturday. In the first two quarters, Thorson turned the ball over three times, losing two fumbles and throwing an interception deep down the field. He also missed receivers multiple times with bad throws, a week after throwing two ill-advised interceptions at Duke.
However, he bounced back in the second half, leading three scoring drives to start the third quarter, including a pair of touchdown passes. Pat Fitzgerald has emphasized that he has never thought about switching his starting quarterback even when Thorson has struggled, so the Wheaton native’s talent will be center-stage as the year moves along. That being said, he will have less margin for error as conference play starts and opposing defenses get stingier.
For the second game in a row, the Wildcats’ defense wasn’t able to record a sack. But unlike in the Duke game, Northwestern put very little pressure on Ball State signal-caller Riley Neal. The true freshman had lots of time to throw as he posted 178 yards and two touchdowns through the air by connecting with wide receiver Jordan Williams, who abused the man coverage employed on him.
Further, the Wildcats had trouble keeping Neal in the pocket as he ran for 74 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per rush. Moving into Big Ten play, Northwestern will need to put pressure on the opponent’s backfield, like NU did against Eastern Illinois and Stanford. Otherwise, the likes of Christian Hackenberg and Tommy Armstrong could have a field days against Northwestern.
8 – 57
The Wildcats committed 8 penalties for 57 yards on Saturday. So far in the 2015 season, they’re averaging 37.5 yards from penalties – 18 total penalties for 150 yards. Northwestern was supposed to be a very disciplined team but too often this season has committed ill-timed holding penalties and false starts. With a newly banged up offensive line, the Wildcats may continue to have trouble with offensive line penalties. These mistakes need to be cleaned up in conference play, as a close game could be completely swung by a few dumb penalties.
After a quiet start to his senior campaign, Dan Vitale shined bright under the lights Saturday with five catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns, including a 62-yard scamper for a score in the second quarter. He had only seven catches all season before this game, and no more than 40 yards receiving in a game.
With this performance alone, Vitale equaled his touchdown output from all of last season; he coincidentally also had a monster performance in Week 4 last year, but never seemed to get on track. Vitale provides solid leadership and a legitimate matchup problem for opposing defenses, both of which are essential if Northwestern wants to contend in the Big Ten West.
Northwestern allowed 19 points Saturday, three more points than the Wildcats had allowed all season prior to the game. Part of that could be due to the idea of a “trap game” or injuries to multiple key players, but the numbers are still not great. Both of Ball State’s touchdowns came on passes of over 20 yards where Northwestern’s defensive backs couldn’t make a play on Jordan Williams.
Ball State also had another possession inside the Northwestern five-yard line, but gifted the defense with a fumble on a botched handoff. The Cardinals also missed two field goals and an extra point. Still, the defense should continue to be the strength of Northwestern going forward and is still a strong unit overall. Most people expected another dominating performance from it, however, and instead the defense had its first hiccup of the season.