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Behind Enemy Lines: Northwestern

We talked to Inside NU about tomorrow’s LOL game!

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern isn’t very good. But we’re good friends with their SB Nation site, Inside NU, and we asked some questions to them this week!

Here were there answers!

TCR: In short...what the hell happened? This goes beyond Thorson graduating. What do you think are the biggest contributing factors to the Wildcats’ disastrous season?

INU: In short, it has been the perfect storm of an old and busted offensive scheme, injuries at key positions, bad turnovers luck, and poor late-game execution/coaching. Northwestern fans have been calling for a change at offensive coordinator for years, even when it appeared to a neutral outsider that things were moving along smoothly.By my count, the Wildcats have seen four of their preseason top five running backs, each of their top two superbacks (read: tight ends), two of their top three wide receivers, and their top two QBs miss significant time. Hey, at least the offensive line is largely unscathed! With that kind of attrition added to an offense undergoing a transition period that was already probably past its last legs, things completely collapse. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.The defense has been fine, though the last few weeks have been a step back, especially from last year’s form. The special teams have been generally below average, but that’s pretty par for the course from a Pat Fitzgerald-coached team. But Northwestern has paired an absolute offensive implosion with bad breaks and in-game coaching difficulties. That rare mixture has created a perfect storm of incompetence that has gotten the Wildcats to where we are today.

TCR: How does this season fit into the long-term view of the program under Pat Fitzgerald? Is this a perfect storm of aberrations, or is it indicative of problems Fitz needs to fix immediately?

INU: Even though I essentially said this has been a perfect storm of aberrations in the above answer, there are still problems Fitz needs to immediately address. First, it’s time for a new offensive coordinator and scheme. The Wildcats’ route concepts are too repetitive, their line checks too complex, and the prevalence of breakdowns in execution implies a deeper problem. I also wouldn’t mind a change in philosophy at wide receiver, where it seems talent wastes away thanks to failure to improve basic route-running, among other things.That said, despite this year’s disaster being by far the worst season of Fitzgerald’s tenure, the turnaround narrative writes itself. Northwestern loses a few key players to graduation, but has arguably the deepest recruiting class in program history coming in (though it just took a hit with the arrest of four-star 2020 QB Aidan Atkinson for multiple counts of sexual assault). With a revamped offensive philosophy and a new outlook in 2020, it seems very possible that this season could be forgotten quicker than you might expect.

TCR: We here at TCR are veterans as far as watching awful games with both eyes on the future is concerned. What have you seen on the field that’s been encouraging for the near future? What players have you identified as “guys that will develop into stars”?

INU: Northwestern has always had one great-looking slot receiver. This year, that’s junior Riley Lees, who has hands like glue and seems to be the only option out wide that can consistently get open. He will be vital in 2020. Aside from him, some promise shown by elusive redshirt first year running back Drake Anderson (and true first year at the position Evan Hull, who Illinois won’t see because he hit four games last week), and a generally impressive year for an offensive line that is largely sophomores and juniors (featuring stud junior left tackle Rashawn Slater), there isn’t much for Wildcat fans to hang their hats on offensively.On the other side of the ball, true first year defensive end Adetomiwa Adebawore and redshirt first year Eku Leota have shown significant promise as edge rushers working with and opposite new Northwestern career sack leader Joe Gaziano, who will be playing his final game in purple on Saturday. The linebacker corps is juniors across the board, with former walk-on Chris Bergin impressing this season; it’ll be fun to see them run it back for another year. In the secondary, the main player to watch is true sophomore Greg Newsome II, who is arguably the most underrated Big Ten corner but was unfortunately lost for the year just over a month ago.

TCR: If this offense were to break out, what would it look like? Besides injuries at quarterback, why hasn’t it worked?

INU: It would look like it did against UMass (and during garbage tie against Minnesota): runs, runs, and more runs. Quarterback keepers, running back carries, wide receiver end-arounds, wide receiver-turned-running back carries, cornerback-turned-running back carries (yes they may have some of those on Saturday), etc. Northwestern does not really have an explosive running game, but if they can stay consistent on the ground and throw the ball as rarely as possible (they had more quarterback runs than throws in each aforementioned game) they will turn the ball over less and honestly not lose much big-play potential.It hasn’t worked for a few reasons. Northwestern’s route concepts, as mentioned before, are limited and predictable. They just about never throw anything downfield, especially not up the seam (don’t think I’ve seen the ball thrown on a true seam/deep post route all year), and typically run variations on mesh or flood in the early downs before doing some deep outs on third down (though they have varied that more in recent weeks). Add that to inexperienced quarterbacks, some of whom, like Aidan Smith, also don’t appear to be very good, along with sloppy route-running, and you get virtually nothing in the passing game. Tough to score points without moving the ball through the air.

TCR: Of the defenses Illinois has faced, which is Northwestern most like? What do you expect out of them against the Illini spread rushing attack?

INU: Northwestern is a lot like an Iowa or a Michigan State scheme-wise. Base 4-3 group that will absolutely pack the box, especially against a team like Illinois, while also keeping at least one safety well over the top and playing sagging coverage on the outside to prevent big gains through the air (which is a bit more unique to DC Mike Hankwitz’s scheme). Northwestern will do their absolute best to sell out and stop the run, but this team is missing a ton of rotational defensive linemen.Minnesota pounded it on the ground with their RPO-based scheme on Saturday. Illinois does things differently, but I expect them to still have some success, at least more than you would normally see against a typically stingy Wildcat run defense. That will only impound itself for NU if the linebackers and safeties aren’t able to consistently come up and make open-field tackles.

TCR: What does the path to victory on Saturday for Northwestern look like?

INU: Slow it down, grind it out, hope the two teams’ luck somehow reverses. I’ll just go ahead and say that regardless of who is under center for either team, Northwestern is going to have a really tough time winning if Illinois puts up at least 20, tough you never know when a shocking offensive resurgence or a random momentum-winging play could come.

Go Illini!