After 600-yard offensive outburst against Purdue, the ‘Cats did a complete 180 against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, struggling offensively for much of the afternoon and eventually falling by a final score of 29-12. Northwestern came into the weekend needing a win to clinch bowl eligibility and left still needing that sixth win. The ‘Cats will have one more chance to secure a second straight bowl berth when they take on Illinois at Ryan Field Saturday, but first let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the ‘Cats’ loss in Minneapolis.
On a day where the Wildcats really struggled to run the ball, Justin Jackson put together a decent performance, with 22 rushes for 90 yards, a 4.1 yards per carry average. The ‘Cats’ offensive line had trouble giving Jackson running room all day, producing just a 36 percent opportunity rate, defined as the percentage of plays which an O-line “does its job” and produces 5+ yards for the running back. Despite this performance, Jackson still found holes, avoided tackles and produced a solid day on the ground for the Wildcats.
The Gopher offense is spearheaded by running back duo Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith. but the Wildcats were able to slow Brooks and Smith down, to the tune of just 3.3 yards per carry. Neither topped 100 yards on the day and the Gophers gained just 131 yards on the ground. While the ‘Cats did surrender four rushes of 10+ yards, Northwestern’s defense was able to hold its own against the Gophers, forcing Minnesota into an average third down distance of 7.1 yards.
To say Northwestern struggled in the red zone on Saturday would be an understatement. The ‘Cats scored on only two of their four red zone opportunities, leaving almost 13 points on the board – two missed two-point conversions, a missed field goal and two turnovers on downs in opponent territory. Points, especially on the road, come at a premium in Big Ten play, but the Wildcats have struggled all season scoring, especially scoring touchdowns, in the red zone. Northwestern ranks No. 126 in the FBS in red zone scoring percentage at 70.59 percent, ahead of only Rutgers and Indiana.
Whereas Justin Jackson was able to average a decent number of yards per carry, as a whole Northwestern’s rushing attack was not as the Wildcats were held to just 63 yards on 33 carries, a 1.9 yard average. An inability to rush the football has led to unbalanced offense in several of Northwestern’s losses this season, and this problem resurfaced Saturday with the ‘Cats throwing the ball 12 more times than they rushed it. While it didn’t lead to a huge gap in time of possession, an inability to run the ball allowed Minnesota’s defense to key-in on Clayton Thorson and force quick three-and-outs for the ‘Cats. The ‘Cats ran the ball 33 times Saturday, and fell to 0-6 when tallying fewer than 40 rushing attempts this season.
Offensively, when the ‘Cats go backwards, as they did a lot against the Gophers on Saturday, their offense usually tends to stall and eventually punt. Against Minnesota, Northwestern had 21, yes you read that right, negative plays. The Golden Gophers sacked Thorson an astounding seven times, had 12 tackles for a loss and benefitted from three Wildcat penalties as well. It was a rough game for Northwestern’s offensive line as Thorson was under pressure all game and Jackson and John Moten IV had few holes to run though.
Not only were the ‘Cats often going backwards, they were also not able to sustain drives. Northwestern converted just two of fifteen third downs on Saturday, a 13.33 percentage. 10 of the Wildcats’ 15 drives went for 5 plays or less as Northwestern’s offense could not stay on the field, delivering a concerning performance with just one game left on the season to clinch bowl eligibility.