After magical 2015 season, regression has come swiftly for Northwestern in 2016
This game was a failure for Northwestern long before a last-second kick clanged off the left upright and through the goalposts for Illinois State.
The Wildcats were expected to bounce back after a one-point loss to Western Michigan to open the season, but instead they flopped Saturday in a 9-7 loss to an FCS school. Losing to one of the best teams in the MAC is a disappointment. Losing to a solid FCS program is much worse.
Northwestern won 10 games last season even after being outscored overall by its opponents. It’s getting much harder to not see that as a fluke after the Wildcats have matched their regular-season loss total from 2015 just two weeks into 2016.
Illinois State reached the FCS championship game two years ago before losing to Carson Wentz and North Dakota State. The Redbirds also made the playoffs last year. The gap between high-level FCS football and the FBS has narrowed, but that’s no excuse for a Big Ten team expected to win six-plus games.
Redbirds quarterback Jake Kolbe had one college start on his resume before this game, but he clearly outplayed Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson. Both quarterbacks threw 41 passes. Kolbe completed 30, including an impressive 7-for-7 final drive to set up the game-winning field goal.
Thorson completed 17 passes. He missed open receivers, but he was also scrambling from Illinois State defenders on far too many occasions.
The offensive line, despite playing three starters from last season, is the biggest concern. It couldn’t protect Thorson and didn’t open holes for Justin Jackson.
An all-Big Ten running back, Jackson was a non-factor. He finished with 11 carries for 39 yards. He missed the end of the game because of an injury, but Northwestern had given up trying to run the ball before he exited.
One of the many missed opportunities was a long drive in the third quarter. Northwestern started at its own 2-yard line and the first play was a handoff to Jackson for no gain. He did not touch the ball during the next 13 snaps, before the Wildcats turned over the ball on downs to end the drive. He was the target on one wayward pass, but it was 13 consecutive passes or designed quarterback runs.
Jackson had 124 yards in the loss to Western Michigan. If Northwestern can’t lean on him, this offense could struggle the rest of the season. It’s hard to see who else will consistently create dynamic plays at this point. It’s hard to pinpoint what, if any, progress Thorson has made as a second-year starter.
The last time Northwestern lost to an FCS team was coach Pat Fitzgerald’s first season – a 34-17 loss to New Hampshire, which boasted an offensive coordinator named Chip Kelly. That team also lost to Nevada in a non-conference game on its way to a 4-8 season.
The Wildcats went 8-0 in games decided by 10 points or fewer last season. Regression in that department has come swiftly to start the 2016 season.
Northwestern next faces Duke, which is reeling after a 24-14 loss to Wake Forest. The path to six wins does not look easy for the Wildcats, with Ohio State and Michigan State among three games against East Division teams.
Northwestern needs dramatic improvement on offense to avoid having this season not end up like the 5-7 campaigns in 2013 and 2014.