Early in the fourth quarter Saturday at Ryan Field, the Wildcats were trailing 13-7, but had a first-and-ten at the Wisconsin 19 yard-line. A few plays later, Clayton Thorson fumbled and the Badgers drove down and scored a touchdown, putting the game out of reach. Northwestern fell to the Badgers, 21-7, on Saturday, dropping to 4-5 on the season. The Wildcats will be back in action this week as they visit the Purdue Boilermakers, but first, let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the ‘Cats’ loss to Wisconsin.
Austin Carr’s line on Saturday was 12 receptions for 132 yards and one touchdown, an average of 11.0 yards per reception. Carr, who’s been a good NUmber just about every week of the season, has become the go-to target for Thorson and the best receiver, statistically, in the Big Ten. Carr continues to perform week in and week out, even against vaunted defenses such as Ohio State and Wisconsin. While the ‘Cats do need to find a reliable No. 2 receiver, Carr has certainly cemented his spot as this season’s top option.
Against a team that averages over 4 yards per carry, allowing 3.3 yards per rush and just 110 yards to Corey Clement doesn’t seem to bad. But when you exclude the final three plays of Wisconsin’s last drive, on which Bart Houston rushed for -37 yards to chew clock, the Badgers averaged 4.2 yards per carry. Northwestern’s run defense was inconsistent throughout the game Saturday at Ryan Field, but overall it had a mediocre performance against the Badgers, missing a number of tackles and allowing a few big runs. Northwestern’s defense didn’t play poorly, especially considering that they were on the field for more than two-thirds of the game. That said, their performance in the run game, Wisconsin’s strength, wasn’t good enough.
The ‘Cats could not get anything going on the ground against the Badgers as Justin Jackson and Thorson combined for a grand total of 39 yards on 19 carries – 2.1 yards per carry. For the third straight game, Northwestern really struggled to run the ball and it led to their offense becoming one-dimensional. The Wildcats passed the ball 52 times and rushed just 19, a completely unbalanced number after they abandoned the rush early on. The ‘Cats’ offensive line continued to struggle Saturday, and now ranks No. 96 the nation in adjusted line yards, a Football Outsiders measure of offensive line success on run plays.
Not only did the ‘Cats’ offensive line struggle in run-blocking situations, they also had a tough week in pass protection. Clayton Thorson was hit a grand total of 10 times – 8 quarterback hits and 2 sacks – as Northwestern’s offensive line struggled against one of the better pass rushes in the country. Northwestern won’t be facing a top-notch defense like the Badgers over the next three weeks, but it is troubling to see the offensive line struggle so much.
The ‘Cats held the ball on offense for just under a third of the game as Wisconsin racked up almost 41 minutes in the time of possession battle. Northwestern’s defense was on the field for more than two-thirds of the game and it showed with missed tackles and an inability to get off the field on third down as the Badgers converted 7 of 17 third downs (excluding their two “garbage time” drives at the end of each half). The ‘Cats weren’t able to sustain drives against Wisconsin, with just under half of their drives going for more than 5 plays, and it really killed their chances.