Did the ‘Cats just turn a corner?
Well last week was fun. The ‘Cats pulled off their biggest upset since last November at Wisconsin, and they head into the bye week feeling the best they have all season. But now it’s time to wonder – was this a one-week thing, or a sign of things to come?
The Wildcats definitely made some notable changes and stepped up their game, but overall last week was mostly them taking advantage of a flawed, struggling Iowa team. Iowa had struggled against Rutgers the week before, and fell to North Dakota State before that. They were also playing without their top receiving target Matt Vandenberg, limiting their ability to capitalize on Northwestern’s banged up secondary.
But all that being said, there are still a couple things that stood out from their victory that could carry over to the rest of the season. Most impressively, Anthony Walker looked like the franchise. He was all over the field, leading the team with 10 tackles. After his slow start to the season, he looked fully healthy and in peak form. If Northwestern has any hopes of being competitive this year, they need Walker to dominate like he did last week.
But Walker wasn’t the only defensive standout for the ‘Cats. Senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo, who lost his starting job earlier this year, had a monster four-sack game. He’s one of the best recruits in Northwestern history, and has had his moments as a pass rusher, but this was finally the career game that fans had been waiting for.
Even though the team gave up 31 points, the defense actually played quite well. Iowa took advantage of a costly fumble and poor special teams coverage and was able to convert that field position into points. The ‘Cats allowed two drives of over 50 yards all game, and only allowed 283 yards of total offense. Most impressively, they were able to contain the Iowa running game, which absolutely destroyed them last year.
On the offensive side of the ball, Austin Carr continued to perform like an elite no. 1 receiver, snagging three touchdowns. His breakout season has been the most surprising/encouraging part of Northwestern’s season so far, as he already passed last year’s totals in yards and touchdowns. Having a reliable go-to receiving option is huge for Clayton Thorson’s development, and it gives him an added luxury that he didn’t have last year.
Also, the Wildcat offensive line, under much scrutiny after the first four games, controlled the trenches for pretty much the whole game. It was the strongest overall performance from the group this year, but last week may have been the outlier in that regard. Again, Iowa isn’t as dominant as they were last year, and this is a group that got run completely over by Illinois State a few weeks ago. They still have more work to do to prove that they can consistently control the trenches.
Overall, the ‘Cats showed improvement in some key areas, but they still have some clear weaknesses that could get exposed by some of their talented opponents coming up. This team is not one of the best in the big ten, but last week they showed that they aren’t one of the worst either. If things went south last week, they would have been right in that conversation for worst the worst Big Ten team. Instead, this is a team with its star players performing and showing signs of life.