It has been a very, very long season for Northwestern after the Wildcats won't he Big Ten West last year. They are currently at 1-7 with the worst offense in America, so I spoke with Noah Coffman of SB Nation’s InsideNU about it. My answers to his questions went up this morning, but here is what he had to say to me:
T-Mill: Northwestern is dead last in scoring offense in the country. I know Hunter Johnson has struggled both on and off the field, but what on earth has happened?
Noah: Well, the Northwestern offense has been pretty mediocre for a long time. This year, after Clayton Thorson’s departure and a couple of crucial injuries (superback Cam Green medically retired before the season, his backup hasn’t played yet this year, leading wide receiver Bennett Skowrownek has been out for the past month, and top running back Isaiah Bowser has missed three weeks), things finally went fully south. The offense just isn’t innovative, and is probably too complex for new QBs.
Both Johnson and Aidan Smith have struggled all season long to complete anything down the field, and though each have their own strengths and weaknesses, their statistical profiles are pretty similar for a reason. The route combinations offensive coordinator Mick McCall draws up are limited and quite defendable, and regardless how much Pat Fitzgerald blames “one-man breakdowns” or a “lack of execution” each week, the game plans and play-calling just aren’t where they need to be.
T-Mill: The defense has still shown some promise and has to be happy about facing a third string QB this week, but is that enough right now?
Noah: It’s tough to say that anything is “enough” for a team that is 1-7 and 0-6 in Big Ten play, but the defense has largely done their job. Despite struggling in two of the past three weeks (in fairness, those difficulties came against Ohio State, one of the best offenses in the country, and Indiana, which boasts at least a top-tier Big Ten offense) and having significant injury difficulties of their own, the group has largely held up.
The past few weeks have displayed a weakness on the outside against the pass, something that will only be further magnified with the loss of Greg Newsome II, their best cover corner. Meanwhile, Wildcat defensive linemen are dropping like flies, and Stevie Scott III ran roughshod over the front seven. Still, though, an impressive group of linebackers and a safety tandem that has remained solid all season are each still intact, and there is plenty of hope that the run defense, at least, will bounce back. Northwestern needs to get back to guarding against the explosive play with the competency they showed in that area to start the season, and they still seem to have enough personnel to do it. That will be the difference defensively against Aidan O’Connell and Purdue.
T-Mill: What does Northwestern need to do to break its lengthy touchdown drought and do you have confidence against a somewhat shaky Purdue defense?
Noah: They just need to complete enough short passes that their run game, which has been quite solid at times, can thrive against a somewhat expanded defense. Or, in a scenario which is much less likely given that the team boasts one of the least explosive offenses of the past decade, they need to hit a lucky big play. Honestly, even given Purdue’s defensive struggles, that first touchdown in a month may well come from the defense or special teams. Either way, I’m relatively confident that six points will come this week, if only because the drought seems to be reaching an implausible length. Hey, it can’t go on forever, right?
T-Mill: With even a bowl game out of the question now, what is Northwestern playing for the rest of the way?
Noah: Technically, thanks to a high APR score, it still isn’t completely out of the question!
But realistically, the Wildcats would love to play spoiler down the stretch, especially against teams like Minnesota and Illinois, and they need some sort of momentum moving forwards. If just for recruiting not to tank and something positive to build off of next year, the Wildcats sure would prefer to avoid the ignominy of double digit losses.
T-Mill: Even with Purdue’s injury issues, what concerns you most about the Boilers on Saturday?
Noah: This team is explosive. They may be missing some playmakers, but they seem to have a few to spare, which should be enough to test Northwestern defensively. Meanwhile, the Wildcats haven’t shown much ability to take advantage of even the weaker defenses they’ve faced this year, so a few big plays really could be the difference.
T-Mill: Finally, what is your prediction for Saturday?
Noah: Northwestern may be favored (at least at the time of my writing this) but the last few weeks have fully numbed me to the possibility of a Wildcat win against any Big Ten opponent not hailing from Piscataway. I’ll take the Boilermakers in what may well just be a terrible game to watch. Let’s call it 17-16.