Photo Credit: NUSports.com
Photo Credit: NUSports.com

WNUR’s 3-on-3 series returns.  This week we ask our 3 staffers, Marty Johnson, Henry DaMour and Matt McHugh a 3-pack of Northwestern football questions.

1) Northwestern clinched a postseason berth by beating Nebraska this past weekend.  Is a bowl game a big deal? Is this a meaningful stepping stone for this program?

Marty Johnson: Yes, going to a bowl game is a big deal. Some college football fans believe that due to the massive amount of bowl games (there will be 40 bowls this year) the accomplishment of making a bowl game has been diminished. But winning six games, especially when you compete in the Big Ten, is impressive. It’s even more impressive when you think about how Northwestern hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2012. It marks  Northwestern’s return to legitimacy.

Henry DaMour: Yes, a bowl game is a huge deal. Given the fact that you only have to win half of your games as a Big Ten team to guarantee yourself a spot in the postseason, a bowl game is almost expected.  But this is a meaningful stepping stone for this program. A team like Northwestern that hasn’t typically dominated its conference has to set the bar slightly lower than teams like Michigan State or Ohio State that can go out there every year and push teams around consistently. A bowl game is validation. More importantly, with the hunt for eligibility in the past, the Wildcats have one less thing to worry about and can focus their attention on just playing good football and taking the season one week at a time.

Matt McHugh: A bowl game would definitely be big for this program, no mater what bowl it is . I don’t expect this team to be playing in any of the New Year’s Day bowls (or after, if you’re feeling really optimistic). Simply the fact that this team is young and was able to win at least 6 games is encouraging. This team was not supposed to be good this year, as evidenced by being 10-point underdogs at home in week one. Even taking their disastrous losses into consideration, they have already exceeded expectations this year, and the reward is a bowl game.

2) Northwestern’s defense through 5 weeks was among the best in the country.  Through 8 weeks, it’s a different story, as they’ve given up 38, 40, and 28 in consecutive weeks.  What’s to blame? Injuries? Or something more serious?

MJ: I think it’s a mixture of things. While the defense did get after some very good teams (#8 Stanford, #22 Duke), the overall level of talent has increased since Big Ten play has started. Two of the teams that the defense struggled with (Michigan and Iowa) are both in the Top 20. The defense has suffered some crippling injuries including standout cornerback Matthew Harris. But I think that Northwestern’s offensive struggles haven’t helped either. When the offense can’t sustain drives, the defense is on the field more and as a result get tired and worn down. And against teams in the Big Ten, a worn down defense is not something that you want.

HD: Injuries are not to blame here. I actually chalk it up to the offense and its relationship with the defense and how much this Northwestern team feeds off itself. The Iowa game was a prime example of this. The offense couldn’t get anything going on a bunch of drives, often going 3 and out in alarmingly quick fashion. This gives the defense WAY too much time spent on the field. They get tired, they play sloppier, and it all tends to snowball from there. At one point in that game specifically, the defense was on the field almost three times as much as the offense.

Northwestern has been slow out of the blocks sometimes this year too. If the team can establish itself in the first few drives, the momentum seems unstoppable from then on. The inverse is unfortunately true as well.  If the offense has a few crummy drives to start off, the defense can’t recover.

MM: I’m going to go out on a limb here (not really) and say that Stanford was vastly underprepared for week one, and that game considered pretty much an outlier. With that considered, the difference in the defensive play is simple: they can handle bad teams, but not legitimate big ten contenders. Dean Lowry looked great last week, but struggled against Iowa’s strong offensive line, Anthony Walker has had his ups and downs, and the secondary has gotten burned on their fair share of plays. There’s obviously plenty of talent with this unit, but they just aren’t what they were hyped up to be after week one.

3) The Wildcats, as you now doubt have realized, are super young, with impact underclassmen at running back, quarterback, safety, middle linebacker, and on the defensive front.  Who are you most worried about?  Who’s impressed you the most? Who’s got an NFL future?

MJ: This might be an obvious pick, but Clayton Thorson worries me the most. He’s shown sparks of talents at times this season, but at other times he’s struggled to put simple throws on receivers. He’s shown that he can be dangerous with his legs, but until he can make defenses fear his arm as well, the Northwestern offense will never be as good as it can be.

As for players that have caught my attention, I would have to go with Justin Jackson and Anthony Walker. Both are sophomores and are already some of the team’s best players. While, Jackson has struggled running the ball in the past several of games, I don’t put that on him. The offensive line he’s running behind is struggling and the passing game’s ineffectiveness makes it hard for him to run effectively. As for Walker, he’s everywhere. He has 67 tackles on the season and is what makes the NU defense go. I think both have futures in NFL.

HD: Clayton Thorson has impressed me the most. He has shown that he has matured even from the beginning of this season as far as making good reads and using his legs to be a rushing threat when appropriate. When his offensive line helps him out and gives him enough time, he plays like a top-tier B1G quarterback.

The underclassmen that has me worried the most would be redshirt freshman left tackle Blake Hance. Two reasons: First, the offensive line as a whole this year has been outmatched. Some chalk that up to being simply smaller than other defensive lines, but the fact remains that their protection of Clayton Thorson has to improve, especially as he is maturing as a QB. Second, two of the other starters on the O-line will be gone next year, and the other two the year after that. Hance will have to step up in a huge way to take this O-line to the next level over the next few games, and especially years to lead the guys who fill those spots.

Anthony Walker is the man I see with an NFL future. He is the defensive sparkplug. In games that Northwestern has looked dominant (Stanford, Minnesota), the defense shone, and Walker’s tackles and tackles for loss went through the roof. When he struggles, however, the rest of the defense starts to cave, further highlighting his importance in making that defensive machine run. He comes up at the top of most defensive metrics for the Wildcats, and is only a sophomore.

 
MM: Of all of their young players, it seems like Anthony Walker and Godwin Igwebuike have the best instincts. They’ve both made a number of mental errors, but that is reasonable to expect from a pair of sophomores. By their senior years, their experience paired with those instincts could be enough to make them future NFL players.
 
I’m most worried about Justin Jackson, whose performance has fallen off a cliff since conference play started. Granted, there weren’t many running opportunities in the Michigan and Iowa games, but even with the lead against Nebraska the running game struggled to get going. We’ll see how he adjusts, but I wouldn’t expect him to be an NFL-caliber running back.
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