“We’re not actually going to lose, right?”
“How did we lose?”
I can say, without reservations, that this was probably the worst college football game I have ever watched. Mind you, I haven’t watched all too many college football games, and my emotional distress may still pale in comparison to that DeSean Jackson game from 2010 (hits head on desk repeatedly). I don’t need to tell you that Northwestern played very poorly. A 9-6 defeat to an FCS school is enough to know that Northwestern played poorly. Let’s rank the top ten contributors to this tire fire of a performance:
10. Auston Anderson – Justin Jackson went out with an injury late in the game. This was a massive cause for concern, and Northwestern finally caught a glimpse of what life without Jackson could be like. Anderson had 4 attempts, all of which came at crucial points of the game. He had a net gain of 8 yards. It’s not fair to penalize him too much, but Warren Long was ruled out for the game well in advance and he had a long time to prepare for this moment. On the final drive in which Northwestern failed to get a first down to ice the game, Anderson went nowhere.
9. Anthony Walker Jr. – I hope you haven’t been actively charting Anthony Walker’s draft stock in the past two weeks. After two no-shows against Western Michigan and Illinois State, I don’t hear anyone going on about Walker’s first-round potential. It still may be there, but the buzz has subsided considerably. I would say Walker played okay, but at times, Northwestern needed him to be the great linebacker from 2015 and it just wasn’t there.
8. Ifeadi Odenigbo – Northwestern’s Gibson/Lowry replacement had 1 sack. It was also his only tackle of the entire game. Odenigbo was mostly invisible again, and he would be higher on this list if the rest of the team hadn’t completely collapsed. Jake Kolbe is not a very good quarterback (watch that second INT again if you don’t believe me) and Odenigbo gave him all the time in the world to make up for it.
7. Sean Slattery – You may not know his name, but he is the man that kicked the game-winning field goal for Illinois State. This is a man that has “made 8-9 PAT attempts against the Delta Devils” on his roster card on the Illinois State website. Yes, making 8/9 extra points against Mississippi Valley State is considered a huge achievement for Sean Slattery. But credit to him, he came through in the clutch. GO DELTA DEVILS!
6. Pat Fitzgerald – Pat Fitzgerald probably should have called timeout and given Northwestern a little time at the end. Pat Fitzgerald probably should have game-planned a better offensive strategy against an FCS defense. In the end, Pat Fitzgerald probably should have done many things in this game, but there’s only so much you can blame a coach for. I can’t put him above 6.
5. Brock Spack – On the other hand, Brock Spack coached a damn good game against Northwestern. He wasn’t afraid to take chances offensively (even though they backfired miserably) because he knew that Northwestern couldn’t hurt him on the other side of the ball. He forced Northwestern to throw and the Wildcats could not. He repeatedly picked on the depleted and exhausted Northwestern cornerbacks. In the end, Brock Spack probably did many things to win this game, but there’s only so much you can credit a coach for. I can’t put him above 5.
4. Clayton Thorson – Clayton Thorson was not good in this game. He admitted it himself in the press conference. Thorson missed a few passes and was generally inaccurate, but he also found himself with almost no time to throw. Still, it was clear that Illinois State did not respect any medium to long-range passes from Thorson, and it paid off.
3. Jack Mitchell – To be honest, Jack Mitchell didn’t actually do that much to lose the game (other than, you know, miss the 33-yard field goal in the first half that would have helped tremendously), but I’m just so tired of being nervous every time an extra point or field goal is kicked in a non-pressure situation. Is that payback for not being stressed when Jack has to make clutch kicks?
2. Mick McCall – Remember when I said there was only so much you can blame a coach for? Nah, screw that, McCall had a bad gameplan and you can tell the entire Northwestern offense knew it. Just for a second, forget about Northwestern maybe having an ounce of creativity or creating a few different plays that Northwestern could audible to in the no-huddle offense. Forget having a plan to attempt to cover for Northwestern’s offensive line woes. Forget about all that. Let’s just focus on McCall’s insistence on the most vanilla playbook in college football.
When I got into college football, I expected creative and hyper-fast offenses with plenty of motion plays and zone-reads. Maybe I watched too many Chip Kelly Oregon highlights on YouTube, but I always thought college football was the zone for football experimentation and wild ideas. If you wanted to take 5 seconds between plays, you could. If you wanted to swap out quarterbacks on every downs (like that Texas/Notre Dame game), you could. It wasn’t the stagnant, ossified NFL, where going for it on fourth down was a breach of ethics. College football was open.
Then I watched Northwestern’s offense for two months. And then I was forced to watch it again and again and again and again and then again because I had to write a column about it. I’m not even ignorant that boring football can be effective. Alabama’s style is hardly “exciting”, but it works. What kills me is that Northwestern’s style is boring and it also doesn’t work.
College football is not a utopia. It is a prison.
1. The Entire Offensive Line – I wrote last year’s Inside NU offensive line player grades. I watched a lot of offensive possessions to come up with my conclusions. I thought I did a pretty fair job. Northwestern’s offensive line did not play well last year (see Bowl, Outback), but Saturday was something else.
There were moments in which Illinois State defenders ran unblocked into the backfield. There were moments in which Clayton Thorson had approximately 0.3 seconds to throw the ball before starting to scramble. There were 4 holding penalties at the worst possible times. It was, no joke, the worst performance by a Northwestern personnel group in the previous two seasons, especially when you adjust for competition. At least Northwestern’s wide receivers caught passes in previous games.
Blake Hance is still not a good left tackle! Connor Mahoney was atrocious. Brad North was also bad. Tommy Doles was mediocre! They eere all useless out there. The players looked strong enough to succeed, but there was no communication, no concept of play design. Sometimes, Northwestern would call a run play and the offensive line would just allow Jackson/Anderson to crash into a wall of defenders. What happened? How can you play football for this long and be this inefficient?
This may be payback for Northwestern’s total lack of cohesion on the offensive line last season. This current group is yet another iteration of that group of okay offensive linemen that entered 2015, but just with even fewer reps together. Brad North missed a large portion of last season. Tommy Doles just looks unready for college football (after how long in the program, again?). Mahoney, the veteran of the group, was not impressive for me last season. He was a part-time starter for much of the year, and he played for most of the game. Northwestern’s offensive line recruiting has tended toward quicker players in exchange for size and strength. Blake Hance, for example, is a converted tight end. Yet against a MAC and FCS defensive front, the entire offensive line has looked flat-footed and overmatched. How did this happen?
The solutions are endless, but the truth is simple. They can start by plugging in wide-open gaps and not making basic technical violations that lead to penalties and lost yardage. The loss of Ian Park and lack of any other respectable options on the offensive line left the current group completely out to dry. Even with the whole unit having a bad day, Fitz admitted that he didn’t have any suitable replacements to punish any mistakes from the offensive linemen. That goes back to recruiting. If you don’t have 6-8 playable offensive linemen on a college football roster, something is very wrong. Linemen get hurt. They’re big and can tire easily. To not have any substitutes on hand is just inexcusable and baffling. What good college football team doesn’t have one or two utility linemen to spell the starters in a game? Illinois State had enough bodies. Why didn’t Northwestern?
CORRECTION: Thank to Ian McCafferty for schooling me on the performance of the offensive line. It was still bad, but he explained specifically how bad.