By Ben Krieger
Football is back! And so are the WWWWWWWWWildcats! Northwestern kicked off the 2018 season with a nail-biter against Purdue, taking down the Boilermakers 31-27. With the win, the Wildcats stand alone at 1-0 in the Big Ten and will look for their 10th straight win plus revenge for last season’s loss against Duke on Saturday.
Week one featured plenty of ups and downs, including a key return, an emerging star, and a puzzling disappearance. Based on initial reactions, film analysis and box score scouring, here are five observations from the Northwestern victory:
What on earth were the Wildcats doing with their quarterbacks?
Coming into the season opener, the biggest question around this team (and maybe the entire conference) was the health of Clayton Thorson. As WNUR Sports’ Kevin Sweeney noted in his week one preview from July, the Wildcats’ offense is a very different unit with and without the winningest quarterback in program history.
Pat Fitzgerald refused to tip his hand on who would start all summer long until finally alleviating the fears of Wildcat nation by sending Thorson out for the team’s first possession. Just two possessions later, though, Thorson was replaced by backup TJ Green. The two went on to alternate every few drives or so, confusing just about everybody in the stadium and at home. It’s not good practice to speculate but someone is thinking just from seeing their face on television, but it looked like Thorson was in the same boat as everyone else:
After the game, Pat Fitzgerald said the plan all along was to rotate the two quarterbacks and limit Thorson’s exposure just eight months removed from his ACL tear in the Wildcats’ Music City Bowl victory. If that’s what the doctors said is best for Thorson’s long-term health, then so be it, but it doesn’t really make much sense. It seems like his knee should either be ready or not ready, but for now the answer is half-ready. It will be a situation worth monitoring all season long.
It was a very good game for the secondary…
It’s way too early to be calling it SkyTeam2.0, but Northwestern’s defensive backs lit up the stat sheet against Purdue. The secondary intercepted two passes and broke up three more while getting another interception and a trio of pass breakups from their friends up front.
Aside from simply preventing the other team from scoring, forcing turnovers is a defense’s top priority. Not only did the Wildcats’ secondary come through in a big way, but all three interceptions led to Northwestern touchdowns on the very next drive.
Here’s the first interception of the game, which flipped a promising drive by the Boilermakers into good field position for the Wildcats’ first touchdown drive. Pay attention to JR Pace’s positioning on this play, as he does a great job reading quarterback Elijah Sindelar to put himself in a position to succeed.
Right from the snap, he drops into deep coverage over the middle, meaning he needs to be ready to get to either side should Purdue try to go deep. While he does break toward his left for a half-second in response to Sindelar’s rollout, he sees Sindelar’s shoulders open up and shades back over, ending up right in the perfect place to make the catch. Beautiful.
It was team captain Montre Hartage who made this clutch interception near the end of the first half. This was frankly a terrible decision and pass from Sindelar, but that doesn’t take away from Hartage’s achievement. The senior cornerback does a great job of sticking with his man in coverage for more than six seconds, jumping the route when the pass comes, and securing the ball to his chest to ensure he makes the catch.
It wasn’t a perfect game for the secondary, as they struggled to contain speed demon Rondale Moore (who finished the game with 313 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns) and allowed Purdue quarterbacks to post a 65 percent completion percentage and 270 yards. But at the end of the day, the turnovers had a huge impact in a game that came all the way down the wire.
But the front seven helped a ton too
For starters, there’s this terrific interception from linebacker Nate Hall, which gave the Wildcats a short field and resulted in a Northwestern touchdown just three plays later:
Here’s another look; pay attention to the way Hall feigns the blitz, reads Sindelar’s eyes and body language, then snags an unbelievable one-handed catch on a bullet of a pass:
Beyond this terrific play, Northwestern’s front seven did a great job putting pressure on both Purdue quarterbacks and being disruptive all game long. Even with standout pass-rushers Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller having quiet games statistically, the Wildcats registered two sacks and five more tackles for a loss.
Let’s take another look at Sindelar’s first interception, which spoiled a solid Purdue opening drive. Ignore the secondary and focus on the pressure Northwestern generates. The Wildcats dial up a blitz while dropping a couple linemen into coverage, bringing five in total. Both middle linebackers slip through the offensive line easily, rushing Sindelar and forcing a bad throw that led to an interception:
It’s great to see the Wildcats generating three turnovers, but plays like this one are almost as important and equally impressive. With Purdue facing 3rd-and-10 on the doorstep of the red zone, Northwestern drops seven into zone coverage. Watch the slot receiver on the right side, who just happens to be the extremely dangerous Rondale Moore.
Moore finds himself plenty of space beyond the first down marker, waiting for the pass that would yield and first down and maybe more, but it never comes. Before Sindelar has any chance to get the ball to his most effective playmaker, the pocket collapses, and he is forced to dump it off. Northwestern’s four-man pass rush comes up huge, forcing a stop and getting the defense off the field. Purdue settles for a field goal, and the Wildcats end up winning by four points.
The ball carrier is dead. Long live the ball carrier.
This is not really true, as Justin Jackson is one of if not the greatest player in Northwestern history and will always be the one true ball carrier. But it is true that Northwestern’s rushing attack did not miss a beat without him against Purdue.
After a tantalizing freshman season that saw him average 6.0 yards per carry, Jeremy Larkin took the metaphorical torch from Jackson and likely made his predecessor proud. Larkin was an absolute force, racking 145 yards on 26 carries (5.5 ypc) and scoring two touchdowns, adding 20 more yards on four receptions. His performance featured this highlight:
Just look at that stiff arm:
Outside of the highlight reel speed, Larkin showed plenty of other skills needed to succeed at this level. Here’s a run that only picked up five yards but shows Larkin’s vision and toughness. Notice how he quickly identifies the hole, attacks it decisively, and bounces off the first tackler to keep the run alive:
Larkin’s also a threat as receiver coming out of the backfield. This play stands out on tape for two reasons: First, he succeeds at the simple but often difficult task of catching the football. Just knowing that a linebacker is seconds away from clobbering you, let alone actually taking that contact like Larkin does here, can turn an easy completion into a drop. Second, he shows no signs of trouble transitioning from a receiver to his usual shifty running back self, protecting the football and breaking multiple tackles to pick up a solid six yards after the catch.
It’s still very early in the season, but Pat Fitzgerald seems to have found himself another complete back to lead the team.
A possible explanation for Northwestern’s second half offensive disappearance
The final result put a one in the preferred column, but the second half was a cause for concern for the Wildcats. All of Northwestern’s 31 points came before the break, and the Wildcats’ offense mustered just 131 total yards in the second half after roaring out of the gates with 270 yards in the first half.
While there are many factors that may have contributed to that drastic drop in production such as defensive adjustments or fatigue setting in, taking another look at the play-by-play reveals another potential cause: a shift in strategy that led to fewer carries for Larkin.
In the first two quarters, each of which saw Northwestern score two touchdowns, Larkin received at least seven carries. When Northwestern headed to the locker room leading 31-17, Larkin had 15 rushes and was just five yards shy of the century mark.
Once the Wildcats took the field again, though, they suddenly stopped feeding their lead back. From the start of the third quarter to the beginning of the Wildcats’ final drive with 7:57 left, Larkin rushed just four times for nine yards. None of Northwestern’s five possessions during that stretch lasted longer than 2:44 seconds, and only one went for more than 21 yards.
Just because Larkin’s light workload and Northwestern’s offensive struggles came at the same time, that certainly is not proof that one caused the other. More evidence, however, comes from that game-ending drive for the Wildcats. Regaining possession with a four-point lead and just under eight minutes remaining, Northwestern went right back to what worked early, giving the Boilermakers a steady diet of Larkin. The sophomore wound down the clock with 41 yards on seven carries, sealing the deal for the Wildcats’ ninth straight win.
Again, there were other reasons for the disparity between the halves, many of which we can only speculate, but there was a clear pattern between success and giving Larkin the football. Look for Northwestern to get back to that as it continues its quest for a Big Ten Title Saturday morning at 11 a.m. WNUR Sports will have the call live from Ryan Field on 89.3 FM and WNURSports.com.