It was an excellent week three for the Northwestern football team, as they thoroughly crushed Bowling Green 49-7 at Ryan Field to improve to 2-1 this season. We released a recap hours after the game, so this article will focus on three takeaways from the ’Cats impressive win.
Takeaway 1: The Wildcat passing attack may actually be better than it was last year.
While this view would have been seen as foolish or sacrilegious before Saturday night, Northwestern proved it could function just fine without 2016 Big Ten Receiver of the Year Austin Carr. Clayton Thorson had one of the best games of his Northwestern career, completing passes to nine different receivers en route to 370 yards and two touchdowns. While it will be impossible for any one player to replace Carr’s contributions last season, Northwestern’s passing game looked better on Saturday than it did in any game in 2016.
The biggest reason for this optimism is the emergence of a multi-faceted attack, with legitimate threats emerging for the Wildcats both outside the numbers and over the middle. No offensive player has improved as much as sophomore receiver Bennett Skowronek, who has taken a massive leap and become a terror on the outside. Using his 6-4 frame and above-average speed, Skowronek opened the season with eight catches for 123 yards, both career highs. After a down week (along with the rest of the team) at Duke, Skowronek bounced back in a major way against Bowling Green, hauling in three receptions for 86 yards and two scores.
On the first touchdown, Skowronek showed off his speed, burning the Bowling Green corner over the top for a 58-yard bomb.
While it’s easy to focus on Skowronek streaking toward daylight, notice the safety coming over in pursuit and having no chance because he was not shading over to Skowronek’s side of the field. If Skowronek can continue to be a deep threat like that, defenses will have to start to respecting him by sending safety help to his side. Even more exciting for the Northwestern offense, Skowronek’s second touchdown came in an entirely different way, on an 18-yard fade route.
On this play, Skowronek used his size to his advantage, leveraging the corner for an easy touchdown. While Bowling Green is not at the level of a team like Wisconsin or Penn State, the fact remains that Skowronek demonstrated the ability to beat cornerbacks with speed or size on Saturday night. You know who else has that ability? Players like Julio Jones and Calvin Johnson. I’m not saying Skowronek is anywhere near those all-world receivers, but the fact remains he is emerging as a multi-dimensional threat on the outside.
One talented wideout is not enough to back up my assertion that the passing attack has improved since last year, but the opportunities that the talent outside creates over the middle demonstrate the leap. As Bowling Green adjusted to stop the receiver who burned them for two early touchdowns, tight end Garrett Dickerson showed that he can be a terror over the middle, leading the team with nine receptions for 150 yards. It wasn’t flashy, but he took what the defense gave him, picking up chunk yardage on plays like this one:
The key on this play – and in the Wildcat’s improvements passing – is to notice the inside linebacker on the bottom half of the field. After the initial play-action, Clayton Thorson turns toward the numbers on his right as if to throw a bubble screen. Worried about another big play on the outside, the linebacker turns his head and entire body toward the sideline. Right as he does so, Dickerson goes right up the seam behind him, forming a wide-open target for Thorson and resulting in an easy first down for the Wildcats.
If Northwestern can continue to utilize Skowronek (among others) on the outside while letting Dickerson find creases over the middle, very few defenses will be able to stop the Wildcats’ passing attack without dropping six or seven defenders into coverage. The only problem with that: Northwestern’s best player is running back Justin Jackson, and he eats four-man fronts for breakfast.
Takeaway 2: Don’t fear, Justin Jackson is not dead.
Here are the star running back’s numbers through the first two games of the 2017 season: 127 yards on 37 carries, including an 18-yard dud in week two’s blowout loss to Duke. That comes out to a meager 3.4 yards per carry and only 63.5 yards per game. For comparison, the Ball Carrier rushed for more than 1,100 yards in each of his first three seasons, averaging 4.5 yards per carry in his least efficient season. Wildcat fans were at least worried, if not distraught, at Jackson’s apparent drop in play this year.
Thankfully for the team and the Northwestern faithful, Jackson proved he still has plenty left in the tank in the win against Bowling Green. Although everyone on the offense looked good against the Falcons, Jackson stood out, totaling 121 yards on 18 carries (6.7 YPC) and putting the Wildcats in the end zone three times.
Just from the box score, it’s clear that we saw vintage Jackson on Saturday night. But his game looks even more impressive on tape, as he was able to produce those eye-popping numbers even with the offensive line continuing to struggle. There were plays where Jackson had holes to run through, but still too many times the Ball Carrier had to shake would-be tacklers near the line of scrimmage, as he did on this impressive second-down carry late in the third quarter:
This play is designed to be a simple off-tackle run with the center pulling to the right side. Early on though, Jackson sees the crease between the guard and tackle and cuts toward it. Bowling Green’s linebackers do an excellent job plugging the hole, and it looks like Jackson will be stuffed for little to no gain. Instead, he does his best Marshawn Lynch impression, spinning out of one tackle, shedding another, and making a third defender miss before surging forward for a pickup of six.
If Jackson can continue to run like this, the Wildcats have no reason to worry about the run game, especially if the offensive line picks up its play as the season rolls along.
Takeaway 3: Northwestern’s defense will have problems in the Big Ten without improvement.
It’s no secret the Wildcats have had some issues on defense this season. After losing linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. and pass-rusher Ifeadi Odenigbo to the NFL, the team had some major holes to fill. Surprisingly though, Northwestern’s defensive struggles have not come up front but rather on the back end. The news of another lost season for Keith Waktins III before week one hit the Wildcats hard, and a rash of injuries up and down the cornerback depth chart have left the secondary scrambling.
While the defense was more than good enough against Bowling Green (nobody is complaining about seven points allowed), there were some troubling signs for the ’Cats heading into their two toughest games of the year against Wisconsin and Penn State.
The first remains that cornerback depth chart. There is plenty of talent there, but those guys simply have to get healthy over the bye week. Easier said than done yes, but with Watkins out for the year, the Wildcats need Trae Williams and Marcus McShepard to be at 100% in order to stop top opponents.
The second issue is easier to correct as well as far more important to success: tackling. There were too many plays where Northwestern allowed Bowling Green extra yardage through some combination of bad angles to the ball and not wrapping up after first contact. This play in the first quarter highlights the problem:
After surrendering the catch, safety Godwin Igwebuike (16) takes a good angle in pursuit of the wide receiver. With two more Wildcats closing in, this play should result in no more than a 10-yard gain for the Falcons. Instead, Northwestern ends up in a three-player collision that allows the Bowling Green receiver to pick up 33 yards and put his team in the red zone. This turned out to be the only touchdown drive of the night for Bowling Green, but you can bet that high-quality opponents will be able to score plenty without mistakes. If Northwestern can’t dial in the fundamentals, Big Ten play could get ugly. On the other hand, if the defense can settle in and play to its full capacity, Northwestern can be a formidable opponent for any team in the nation.
BONUS GIF: RUN MATT RUN!