Northwestern looks to shake inconsistencies, pull off early road upset
Northwestern looks to put together a complete game against UW as it heads to Madison this weekend.Image By: Jessi Schoville and Jessi Schoville
Northwestern’s non-conference season was chock full of inconsistencies. In a 41-17 loss to Duke, senior running back Justin Jackson averaged only 2.6 yards-per-carry, finishing the game with only 18 yards on the ground. One week later, against Bowling Green, he ran for 121 yards and three scores. Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson similarly struggled against the Blue Devils, completing only 38 percent of his passes and throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns. One week later, he threw for almost 400 yards and two scores.
Yet amidst the Wildcats’ (2-1) topsy-turvy start to their season, they come into Madison looking to pull off a major road upset, just like they did two years ago. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst, though, knows about how dangerous Northwestern can be.
“I think he’s a really talented football player, a good runner,” Chryst said about Jackson. “And I think the combination of him and [quarterback Clayton] Thorson — they complement each other really well. I think that’s what makes their offense; those are the challenges of their offense.”
Like Wisconsin, the Wildcats were on a bye this past week. But two weeks ago against BGSU, Northwestern scored touchdowns on its first five possessions of the game. Sophomore receiver Bennett Skowronek caught two of those touchdowns to continue a hot start to his season. And senior tight end Garrett Dickerson proved to be a major matchup problem as he finished the game with nine catches, 150 yards and one score.
Yet while the Wildcats’ offense has been inconsistent at points this season, its defense is in need of some major improvement, or at the very least medical assistance. NU only has two healthy cornerbacks with any FBS experience, Montre Hartage and Trae Williams. Backups Brian Bullock and Roderick Campbell were recently declared out for the season and Marcus McShepard has not suited up since the first weekend of the season. As a result, when the Wildcats shift into a nickel scheme they do so with a third safety and not a third cornerback.
The strategy has in many ways helped Northwestern’s secondary to adapt a bend-but-don’t-break approach. Against BGSU, it allowed 27 passes to be completed, but only surrendered 256 yards. Only one pass play went for more than 21 yards.
NU’s run defense will also be tasked with stopping an elite Badger backfield. As a result of its struggles against Duke three weeks ago, the Wildcat defense was on the field for more than 40 minutes and gave up more than 220 yards on the ground. The sub-par performance can also be attributed to its offense’s poor struggles, but injuries to the Northwestern front seven have also taken a toll.
Yet, history suggests that something unexpected is bound to happen Saturday afternoon, and if NU is able to pull off a major upset, it will put itself in the driver’s seat of the Big Ten West division.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter