Northwestern looks to revitalize its offense
Brian Hartnett | Thursday, November 13, 2014
Northwestern’s 10-9 home loss to Michigan last Saturday marked the team’s fourth consecutive defeat.
It marked the fifth consecutive game in which the Wildcats (3-6, 2-4 Big Ten) scored 20 or fewer points.
And it ended with Northwestern just yards short of victory, as senior quarterback Trevor Siemian slipped and fell down as he attempted a two-point conversion after the Wildcats scored a touchdown to close within one point of the Wolverines.
Still, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald saw the close loss as a notable improvement for his team.
“Our guys are coming back; they’re fighting,” Fitzgerald said during the Big Ten Football Coaches Teleconference on Tuesday. “I’m really proud of the way they fought [Saturday]. … We just came up three yards short.”
Last Saturday’s game followed a 48-7 Wildcats loss to Iowa on Nov. 1 and a 38-17 defeat against Nebraska on Oct. 18.
Siemian threw for 273 yards, his single-game season high, and completed over 65 percent of his passes in the game.
Fitzgerald said he was particularly encouraged by Siemian’s 143 passing yards in the fourth quarter.
“It looked like our whole [offensive] line gave Trevor more than a nanosecond to throw the ball, so that was productive,” he said after Saturday’s game. “Looks like we caught it pretty well, a big catch by [junior receiver Cameron Dickerson] to get things moving and obviously the great touchdown catch by [senior receiver Tony Jones] and a bunch in between.”
Despite Siemian’s improved efficiency, the Wildcats, who possess the nation’s 119th-ranked scoring offense, struggled to move the ball, as freshman running back Justin Jackson ran for 35 yards on 17 carries.
Jackson had run for more than 100 yards in three of his four previous games, putting together a 162-yard effort in Northwestern’s victory over Wisconsin on Oct. 4 and a 128-yard, two-touchdown performance in the loss to the Cornhuskers.
Fitzgerald said the team’s next few games would provide a good opportunity for Jackson to bounce back and continue to improve.
“At the end of the day, freshman year is a grind,” Fitzgerald said Tuesday. “… This is where you rely upon and I think where you learn the most as a young player. You’ve got to dig down deep. You’ve got to rely upon and trust yourself, but rely upon the way you practice each week and find one more play. [Jackson] came back and had a really good practice today.”
Fitzgerald added that most of Northwestern’s inability to run Saturday resulted from offensive line breakdowns. The Wildcats have surrendered 28 sacks through nine games thus far, including five sacks Saturday.
“We played poorly up front,” he said Tuesday. “I think it had a lot less to do with Justin and a lot more to do with the way that we targeted. We were out-physicaled, and we did not finish blocks.”
While Northwestern has struggled to find its offensive rhythm, the Wildcats have been stout on defense. Northwestern ranks 30th nationally in scoring defense, allowing slightly over 22 points per game, and the Wildcats have held opponents to fewer than 20 points in five games.
Northwestern also ranks in the top-20 nationally with 11 interceptions. The schemes put together by Wildcats defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz allows the team’s defenders to make plays, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in his Tuesday press conference.
“They have a very sound scheme,” Kelly said of Northwestern. “… They’re never really out of position. I think they’re well coached, fundamentally sound, and they do a really good job of attacking the football.
“Their guys on the back end, their corners and safeties, have very good ball skills.”
With a matchup against No. 15 Notre Dame looming this Saturday, Fitzgerald said his team’s focus is on the short-term, not the potential postseason goals.
“We don’t need to worry about winning out, we need to worry about winning next week,” Fitzgerald said last Saturday. “We’ve got a group of seniors that we want to get in the postseason, and you know, if you focus on that, you’re not going to focus on the preparation. It’s not about the outcome; it’s about getting yourself to go out and do it. So hopefully we will.”
Notre Dame and Northwestern will meet Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Notre Dame Stadium.