The Northwestern Wildcats started the 2016 season on a bit of a sour note, falling just short to Western Michigan, 22-21, in their home opener at Ryan Field. And while the ‘Cats will have a chance to bounce back Saturday against Illinois State, it’s time to take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the ‘Cats loss to the Broncos.
Justin Jackson had himself a day. The Wildcats running back totaled 171 all-purpose yards, 124 on the ground and 47 through the air and three touchdowns. Jackson scored just five touchdowns all season last year, but the junior running back is already more than halfway to his 2015 total one game through the 2016 season. Jackson averaged 5.4 yards per carry and 23.5 yards per reception as he had a monster day on the field in Warren Long’s absence. If Jackson can continue to put up these gaudy number, not only will the ‘Cats offense benefit, but Jackson might vault himself into the Heisman discussion as a darkhorse contender.
After averaging just 4.47 yards per play last season, the ‘Cats headed into 2016 looking to improve offensively. And against Western Michigan, albeit a lesser foe defensively then Northwestern will face in Big Ten play, the ‘Cats averaged 6.0 yards per play, a significant improvement over last season. Further the ‘Cats had 11 plays against the Broncos go for 10 or more yards, including three for more than 20 yards, of which Northwestern only had 44 such plays last season. And while the offense did sputter at times, it was vastly improved from last season, a good sign moving forward for the Wildcats.
Punting has been a consistent problem for Northwestern each of the past three years, but against Western Michigan on Saturday, Hunter Niswander shined, averaging 51.0 yards per punt. Niswander landed two punts inside the 20 and had two go for more than 50 yards as he helped Northwestern flip the script on the Broncos, forcing them into long drives. And while its doubtful Niswander can average 50+ yards per punt over the course of the entire season, zero FBS punters did so last season, it was a good start to the season for Niswander and Northwestern’s special teams.
While the ‘Cats were vastly improved on offense, Clayton Thorson and co. still haven’t really found another go-to target, outside of Austin Carr and Jackson. The two combined for 77.1 percent of the ‘Cats 316 yards of offense on Saturday, with just four other receivers catching passes and just two non-Jackson rushers. And while it certainly didn’t help that Warren Long left the game with an injury after just one carry, someone is going to have to step up to help take some of the load off Carr and Jackson’s shoulders, otherwise defenses will begin to key-in on the two.
With four drives totaling ten plays or more, Western Michigan chewed up the clock and held the ball for almost two-thirds of the game with their 39:04 time of possession. The Broncos had the ball for 84 plays offensively, compared to just 53 for NU. Northwestern’s defense had a lot of trouble getting the Broncos off the field, allowing WMU to convert all four of their fourth down attempts and 41 percent of their third down attempts. Western Michigan picked up 27 first downs, almost double the ‘Cats total and converted a number of crucial third downs as well, including a 3rd and 17. This in turn, tired out the ‘Cats defense and really allowed WMU to take over and dominate Northwestern offensively, to the tune of 416 yards of offense.
The Wildcats were a defense that thrived on the turnover last season, but against Western Michigan, the ‘Cats could manage any, with the only turnover of the game coming on Thorson’s fumble at the goal line. While its easy to go back and just blame Thorson for that one play, the ‘Cats defense struggled all afternoon, giving up 416 yards of offense and 5.0 yards per play to the Broncos. And while the Wildcats didn’t give up many big plays, just one for more than 20 yards, and 15 for more than 10 yards, the Broncos dinked and dunked down the field, tiring out Northwestern’s defense as they couldn’t put any pressure on Zach Terrell or force him into any mistakes. The ‘Cats averaged 2.39 sacks per game last season, but had just one, and none in the second half against the Broncos.