Following a third consecutive poor second-half performance, Northwestern (1-2, 1-0 B1G) lost control of a game that should've been open and shut. Due to terrible turnovers, missed field goals and a lost secondary, the Wildcats fell at home to Akron (2-0), 39-34 (in a game that rightfully upset fans of a promising program). Despite a brief moment of hope at the very end of the game, Northwestern - up 21-3 at the half - ended up with the defeat.
Northwestern never really seemed secure on offense, even after putting up 21 points in the first half. The first Wildcat score came after a fumbled punt attempt by Akron, and the ensuing 82 yards and 2 TDs from Jeremy Larkin were the only points Northwestern could muster in the opening quarter, despite Akron failing to get a single first-down. The first drive of the game for NU ended in Charlie Kuhbander missing field goal, which occurred again in the fourth quarter. At one point in the first half, good field positioning for Northwestern at Akron’s 41-yard-line went unused.
These significant wasted opportunities were just some of the ways the Wildcats damaged their chances at bringing home a win. And that’s not mentioning a stunner on a 4th & 3 that saw a hurried Clayton Thorson (383 yards, 3 TDs, 2 INTs) throw a 97-yard pick-six: a moment that overshadowed an earlier 38-second touchdown drive that ended the second quarter and made the QB Northwestern’s all-time touchdown pass leader.
A decent amount of favorable yardage for NU on both sides of the ball came off of Akron penalties. The Zips were rather undisciplined throughout game, combining for 140 penalty yards against. At one point, two personal fouls on one play turned a failed Northwestern 3rd & 10 conversion into a touchdown. Yet their 15 penalties never took them out of the game.
For Northwestern, two consecutive turnovers signaled defeat midway through the fourth quarter. A Thorson sack in NU territory led to a fumble recovery in the end zone for an Akron touchdown. And just moments later, the lead quarterback was again pick-sixed at the 50 yard line. It wasn’t quite the end, though: Ben Skowronek (7 receptions, 88 yards, 1 TD) caught his sole 24-yard touchdown with 2:21 left in the game, and the final Zips drive left two seconds on the clock at their 30-yard-line. But an end zone throw by Thorson to stave off the upset fell uncaught, and the collapse was complete.
Final at Ryan Field: Akron 39, Northwestern 34.— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) September 16, 2018
The defense stopped the run well but had a difficult time against the long pass. Notable Akron moments included Kwadarrius Smith (6 receptions, 90 yards) securing a 40-yard completion in the red zone against Montre Hartage, and Andre Williams (3 receptions, 85 yards, 1 TD) racing for an end zone catch without stepping out of bounds. Kato Nelson (277 yards, 2 TDs) showed off his arm and his footwork (one notable play: a 13-yard carry past two defenders) several times during the game.
In a Big Ten West Division that has currently seen varying levels of heartbreak (Purdue and Nebraska winless, Wisconsin losing to BYU) perhaps the most shocking underperformance has come from Northwestern. The Wildcats barely hung on to a win against the Boilermakers after a scoreless second half, stalled against Duke after its opening drive and have now fallen into a deeper hole with a defeat to Akron.
😶— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) September 16, 2018
There are a few positives to take away from this game. Larkin had a good rushing and receiving output with a few clutch plays (though in the second half he only had six carries, continuing a trend of low late-game utilization). Cameron Green (11 receptions, 125 yards, 2 TDs) had a career-high reception count (easily surpassing his previous record of six). And Thorson appeared healthier, not starting in only two drives.
The Wildcats will soon head into Big Ten play at 1-0 in conference games, a deceiving record that hides two disappointing losses.
“We’ve got do a lot better job coaching. And I’ve got to do a lot better job with the squad, and we’ll do that," Coach Fitzgerald said in a postgame conference. "Our backs are against the wall, from a standpoint of overall record, but we got a lot of football ahead of us, a lot of season ahead of us.”
Played tough, fans were amazing, and we’ve got next time. Go cats!— Northwestern Wildside (@NUWildside) September 16, 2018
However, in the now-uphill battle to reclaim glory, the Wildcats may have already shown us the team they are this year. With two weeks until their next matchup against a tough Michigan team, Northwestern must make some major changes if it's wants to make this season count.