A quick look at the box score pretty much tells you all you need to know about Northwestern’s visit to Duke last Saturday.
Clayton Thorson completed 11-of-29 passes for 120 yards and two interceptions. Justin Jackson carried the ball seven times for 18 yards. Northwestern converted just one of its 10 third down attempts. Duke possessed the ball for over 41 minutes.
Challenger to Wisconsin’s title in the West?
Dark horse to knock off a giant and claim a B1G championship?
Not even close.
A little harsh?
Those were some of the expectations for Northwestern coming into the season. And, believe it or not, all of those opportunities seemed within grasp. Thorson showed tremendous development from his freshman year to his sophomore campaign. Jackson rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons. The defense has always been solid with Pat Fitzgerald running the show.
But nobody really addressed the elephant in the room. Somehow, the potential issues on Northwestern’s offensive line went unmentioned. After the embarrassing 41-17 loss to Duke and a less-than-impressive two weeks, the problems up front are too noticeable to ignore.
Fitzgerald had no qualms addressing the troubles on the offensive line after Saturday’s loss.
“I think we’ve got to coach that group to be more consistent,” Fitzgerald said. “Fundamentally we’ve got to execute better. Youth is just an age, that’s not an excuse and not an explanation for guys not being able to execute. If they can’t get it done then we’ve got to put somebody else in the game to get it done.”
While the Wildcats had enough to get past a bad Nevada team in the opening weekend, they certainly didn’t get it done against Duke. A glimpse of Northwestern’s third down situations pretty well sum up Saturday’s game.
|Third Downs vs. Duke||Result|
|1Q: 3rd and 10||Sack|
|1Q: 3rd and 8||Complete pass, (first down)|
|1Q: 3rd and 9||Incomplete pass|
|1Q: 3rd and 9||Sack|
|1Q: 3rd and 9||Incomplete pass|
|2Q: 3rd and 6||Fumble (turnover)|
|2Q: 3rd and 2||Sack|
|2Q: 3rd and 8||Incomplete pass|
|3Q: 3rd and 9||Incomplete pass|
|3Q: 3rd and 11||Incomplete pass|
|4Q: 3rd and 2||Duke offsides (first down)|
That’s some pretty ugly stuff.
It can’t all fall on the offensive line. Sometimes Thorson waited too long before making a decision and receivers struggled to get open. Northwestern actually converted a second third down on a completion to Cameron Green, but a fumble cost the Wildcats the possession.
Others can take some of the blame. A good majority of the responsibility falls on the guys in the trenches, though.
“We didn’t win our one-on-ones up front,” Fitzgerald said a couple times after the game.
Thorson was on the run for a good majority of the afternoon. Duke’s front seven clogged the running lanes all game long.
Mark that up to the front five.
Northwestern has some real issues on the offensive line and Saturday’s game against Duke was a real eye-opener. Aside from Brad North and Tommy Doles, the Wildcats don’t have much consistency up front. Fitzgerald has been forced to rotate guys more frequently than he’d prefer.
The loss to Duke doesn’t mark the end of Northwestern’s B1G West hopes. The Wildcats still have a home game against Bowling Green and a bye week before conference play. There’s a little time to tune some things up.
A solution has to be found quickly, though. Northwestern opens B1G play on the road against Wisconsin before coming home to host Penn State — two of the better defensive teams in the conference. Those teams have no trouble with good offensive lines, dismantling Northwestern’s front five would be a light workout for the Badgers and Nittany Lions.
Claiming a division title and playing in the B1G Championship Game has developed into a realistic expectation for Fitzgerald and the Wildcats. It seemed like an attainable goal before the season kicked off. Northwestern has talent at the skill positions to make a push, but it doesn’t mean much without an offensive line.
Maybe Saturday’s loss to Duke will serve as a wake-up call. Or maybe this is a “what you see is what you get” situation. Regardless, Northwestern’s offensive line has to perform better than it did in Durham.
If not, any hopes of competing for a division title will be dashed by the first weekend of October.