Football is a game of inches. Northwestern learned that the hard way when it was upset by Western Michigan 22-21 in the first game of its 2016 season.
The lesson was first dealt when WMU’s Jamuauri Bogan met junior linebacker Anthony Walker at the goal line on fourth and goal from the one-yard line with just 5:38 remaining. Bogan won the battle by inches, and WMU took a 22-21 lead.
But the Wildcats drove back down the field, determined to retake the lead. With first and goal at the six-yard line, redshirt sophomore QB Clayton Thorson was inches from the goal line when he was met by two WMU defenders. The ball popped out and rolled out the side of the endzone. Dubiously, a WMU defender tried to throw it back in, but he was ruled out of bounds - by inches. WMU regained possession with the touchback, ending the Wildcats’ hopes of victory.
It was a crushing loss, and a demoralizing way to start the season. For a team with high expectations after a fantastic 10-3 season last year, pessimism is now replacing optimism. WMU had no problem slicing through NU’s defense, a disastrous sign for a team that will have to travel to Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan State in October. If WMU can do it, what will Big Ten teams do?
The Wildcat defense was supposed to be one of the best units in the nation. It's usually their calling card - their identity. But on Saturday, the defensive line was unable to get any push, affording WMU QB Zach Terrell all the time in the world. WMU’s offense was able to stay on the field and run long drives, almost always resulting in points. In fact, WMU almost doubled NU’s time of possession - 39:04 to 20:56.
The ineptitude of the defensive line gave Terrell enough time to pick apart NU’s secondary, exposing the youth and inexperience in the unit. The Wildcats certainly missed Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson, Nick VanHoose and Traveon Henry - all graduates of NU’s rock-solid defense last year. The assumption was that guys like Xavier Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Kyle Quiero would be able to replace the losses, but maybe this defensive unit just isn’t ready.
Before pessimism struck, the game looked promising out of the gates, as Thorson led a masterful touchdown drive where he completed 5-of-8 for 54 yards. He looked comfortable, confident and made smart decisions on that drive. But WMU dialed up the pressure after it, and NU’s offensive line crumbled. Thorson had little time to throw the rest of the game, and was mostly unable to put together successful drives. He finished 15-22 for 196 yards, with one costly fumble at the end of the game.
There were few bright spots in the Wildcats’ home opener. Junior Justin Jackson rushed 23 times for 129 yards with three rushing TDs (his first three-rushing touchdown game ever), and also added two catches for 47 yards. Jackson was everything for the Wildcats, breaking big plays on the ground and through the air whenever his team needed them. His teammates call him “bread and butter," but on Saturday, Jackson was the whole loaf.
The good news is that there are signs of life in the passing game, as NU’s uncertain wide receiver corps didn’t look awful. Senior Austin Carr was as reliable as ever, snatching five catches for 75 yards, hauling in some trusty third-down grabs. Garrett Dickerson, Solomon Vault and Andrew Scanlan combined for seven catches for 62 yards, and when Thorson had time to throw, his wide receivers did a decent job.
Senior running back Warren Long didn’t return after sustaining an upper-body injury early in the first quarter, and his presence certainly could have helped the Wildcats’ offense. But NU didn't win the battle in the trenches today, on either side of the ball, and it cost them. That's what makes the loss so troubling - NU is known for establishing itself on the line, getting push up front and controlling the game. In the past, successful Wildcat teams have been able to do that.
NU wasn't able to win the battle in the trenches against WMU, so it lost the game. But that doesn't mean NU's season is over. While the schedule will not get easier, head coach Pat Fitzgerald will have lots to work on with his team, and you can be certain he will get his hands dirty. It's a discouraging loss, but WMU is favored to win the MAC this year - they are not a a bad team, and were certainly a tough first-week test. The Wildcats did not start the season the way they wanted to, and there are some glaring weaknesses on both sides of the ball. There is lots of work to be done, but make no mistake, NU's season is far from over.