At the beginning of the season, there was talk of Clayton Thorson being an NFL prospect. Against Nevada and Bowling Green the junior quarterback was a threat both in the air and on the ground and looked among the best in the conference. But matched up with No. 4 Penn State, Thorson and the Northwestern offense completely fell apart.
Northwestern’s defense came ready to play, but an inefficient offense resulted in a 31-7 loss for the Wildcats (2-3, 0-2 BIG) to the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 B1G). Thorson completed 19 of 36 passes, threw two picks and was sacked four times. With just under nine minutes in the game, he was replaced by second-stringer Matt Alviti. In the last two minutes, Alviti got the ‘Cats into the red zone and rushed into the end zone, scoring the Wildcats’ only points for the day.
In the press conference after the game, Thorson summed it up simply: “They played well and we didn’t.”
Thorson was nowhere close to a great game, but the almost-shutout can’t be blamed solely on him. The offensive line continues to plague the success of this team, allowing defenders to get inside the pocket and pounce on Thorson directly. Early in the first quarter, left tackle Blake Hance and right tackle Rashawn Slater left him completely unprotected, forcing a Northwestern fumble and a second turnover on the second drive.
“It looked to me like a bunch of one-man breakdowns,” Head Coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We’ve gotta obviously look at what we’re doing schematically first, that’s on us as coaches, and then we’ve gotta look at personnel.”
This pattern continued throughout the first half, but Northwestern initially stayed competitive thanks to the defensive line. Heisman contender Saquon Barkley was held to -1 yards in the first half, and Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley had only thrown for 28 more yards than Thorson in the first 30 minutes.
Justin Jackson started strong and gave NU some opportunities, recording 63 rushing yards in the first half, but finished the game with only 66 yards, 16 short of the program record. He struggled to find holes and couldn’t explode due to the lack of protection from the offensive line, but going into halftime the ‘Cats only trailed 10-0. “Focusing on surrounding the ball and keeping him inside and in front was one of our goals for this week,” senior safety Kyle Queiro said. “I think we did that for the most part.”
After the half, Northwestern’s offense continued to struggle. They started the third quarter with a three-and-out, and repeatedly had fast-ending drives for the rest of the game. It took the ‘Cats late into the third quarter to earn a first down and move the chains.
“On defense, the defensive tackles can all be wrong, the linebackers can be wrong, [and] the safeties make you right. On offense, you’ve gotta operate at one heartbeat,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ve gotta be in rhythm at starts up front, and we got some breakdowns in situations that are absolutely critical for us being able to sustain drives and be successful.” Penn State, on the other hand, scored a touchdown on their first drive of the second half and took a 17-0 lead. By the end of the third quarter, Saquon Barkley was back to being Saquon Barkley, and after a 53 yard rush touchdown, the Nittany Lions were up 24-0.
Northwestern’s typical offense wasn’t getting the job done: Jackson barely rushed in the final 30 minutes of play and Thorson’s short-range passes got broken up. Defense in the second half wasn’t much better, either. Fitz said that in the second half, the coaching staff put the defense in a bad position and that “they were on the field too long in certain scenarios.” Open tackles were missed and runs weren’t broken up, but most notably, the second half included ejections for defensemen Paddy Fisher (roughing the passer) and Godwin Igwebuike (targeting).
Both Fisher and Igwebuike have started every game this year and will have to miss the first half against Maryland next week. Even though Fitz won’t have two of his starters on the field for the first two quarters, he said he’s happy with the calls because they help keep the sport safe.
“I’m a fan of the call,” he said. “I think we need to eliminate head-to-head contact. I embraced both of those guys after both plays and told them ‘hey, this is what happened, I love ya, and now we’ve gotta lower the strike zone.’ … I want to make sure that I talk to those guys and I want them to know about how I feel about them. Not one of those guys is going out there trying to hurt anybody; there was no intent, they’re just trying to play football.”
After the first five games, Fitz said he’s figured out where this team needs to improve. When asked to name issues so far, he mentioned offensive inconsistency, turnover rate, return units and tackling in space. It isn’t a huge surprise that the Wildcats went 0-2 against powerhouse teams like Wisconsin and Penn State, but the errors that led to those losses have to be corrected quickly if there’s any hope of living up to last year’s 7-6 record.