The Northwestern Wildcats came up short against FCS-foe Illinois State, as Sean Slattery’s game-winning field goal dropped the ‘Cats to 0-2 on the season, with a clash against the Duke Blue Devils coming up. But first it’s time to take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the ‘Cats loss to the Redbirds.
Hunter Niswander continues to excel in the punting game, and after a week where he averaged just over 50 yards per punt, the Wildcats’ punter averaged 45.3 yards per punt on Saturday. Against the Redbirds, Niswander had three punts land inside the 20, two go for more than 50 yards and just one land in the end zone for a touchback. Niswander also booted his longest punt of his career, a 62-yarder midway through the second quarter, and ranks in the top 10 in the FBS in terms of average yards per punt. With the ‘Cats struggling on both sides of the ball, Niswander and the special teams unit have done a great job of helping to flip the field position script on their opponents.
After not forcing a single turnover against Western Michigan, the ‘Cats’ defense finally found pay dirt against Illinois State, with two interceptions of Redbirds’ quarterback Jake Kolbe. Jared McGee and Montre Hartage each had an interception on Saturday, both of which helped stop Illinois State from putting more points on the board. And for a defense that relied heavily on creating turnovers last season, it’s a good sign to see the ‘Cats making plays on defense and helping keep their offense within striking distance.
While Illinois State didn’t put up as many points as Western Michigan did against Northwestern two weeks ago, the Redbirds still found many holes in the ‘Cats’ defense, averaging 5.2 yards per play. The Redbirds gained 372 yards of total offense (287 through the air and 85 on the ground) and were led by Anthony Warrum, who had 9 catches for 117 yards. After two games played, the ‘Cats’ defense ranks 88th in the country in total yards allowed, allowing 394.0 yards per game, and 61st in the country in yards allowed per play, allowing 5.08 yards. And while it’s not all bad news for the ‘Cats (Northwestern’s defense ranks No. 11 in the country per Defensive S&P+), there’s certainly a lot of room for improvement.
For the second straight week, Northwestern’s offense had trouble staying on the field and sustaining drives Saturday. Of the ‘Cats’ 11 drives against Illinois State, 7 of them ended in 6 plays or less. Northwestern had just three drives with double-digit plays and just three that went longer than 30 yards. The ‘Cats had a lot of trouble offensively against Illinois State, especially without Justin Jackson, converting just 27.7 percent on their third downs, as the ‘Cats were continually beaten up front by a smaller FCS foe. That reality is particularly troubling with bigger Big Ten opponents lurking in the coming weeks.
Not only could the ‘Cats’ offense not sustain drives against Illinois State, Clayton Thorson and company had trouble putting together any sort of consistent offense. The ‘Cats had just 191 yards of offense against Illinois State and averaged just 3.8 yards per play, an atrocious number. For context, no team in the FBS averaged worse that 4.11 yards per play last season. This season, the ‘Cats rank 110th in the FBS in yards per play, averaging 4.77 yards each snap, and 116th in the nation in total offense, averaging 298.0 yards per game. Losing Justin Jackson Saturday hurt, but Thorson and company had trouble all day against an FCS foe.