Hailed as one of the most experienced in the country prior to the season, the offensive line has yet to meet those lofty expectations.
"I think the offensive line has been real good at times, and real poor at times," senior Al Netter said. "Just a little inconsistent. I think that we've been a lot better with rushing the ball than we have in years past."
The rushing has certainly improved, but the pass protection has been another story. Northwestern suffered several key sacks against Penn State, though admittedly some were the fault of the quarterback.
"As far as pass protection, it's been a little iffy," Netter said. "We have quarterbacks that like to run and scramble back there. And then a lot of them are on us as offensive linemen…it's just a few plays here and there that have been killing us."
"You're going full go every time back there, but especially with Kain, like I've said in the past, he's an extremely talented athlete," Netter said. "He's going to scramble out and run for a hundred yards probably in the game. You do want to be able to hold your blocks a little longer; you never know where the ball is going to be. That's a point of emphasis when Kain is back there, to just block forever."
Stopping Tre Roberson
In this seasons' struggles, Indiana may have found the quarterback of the future. Freshman Tre Roberson saw his most extended time against Indiana, going 16-24 for 197 yards and a touchdown.
Roberson, however, also has the ability to run the football, which adds a second level the defense must be aware of. Against Iowa, Roberson rushed 16 times for 84 yards.
"First of all he's very talented from the standpoint of being able to run," Fitzgerald said. "He's got playmakers around him…He did a nice job of managing he moved the ball very well on Saturday against Iowa. I'm very impressed with the young man."
Northwestern struggled against mobile quarterbacks a season ago, but the struggles have been mostly in the passing game in 2011. One key to slowing down Roberson may be to improve the pass rush.
"It's not necessarily a matter of calling more blitzes, just executing them properly," defensive lineman Niko Mafuli said.
Northwestern has had plenty of opportunities for sacks, but as Mafuli said, the defense has not taken advantage of those opportunities. NU has recorded just one sack in the past three games.
"We have to finish the job when we're back there. I think we had three guys unblocked [against Penn State] and we went 0-for-3 on those opportunities," Fitzgerald said. "Same thing against Iowa. We had guys in the backfield and we were either a step away or James (Vandenberg) got it out of his hand on time. When that happens, it's tough. We have to get more production there."
With most of the scrutiny of the 5-game losing streak lying on the defense, special teams at Northwestern has been relatively quiet. Venric Mark struggled with catching kickoffs against Penn State, but Pat Fitzgerald doesn't think it's something to worry about.
"They were a little bit of a screwball from a pitching context but he's got to catch those balls. And he's been really good all year, chalk it up as an anomaly game," Fitzgerald said. "It's the third night game so I'm not going to build in that excuse that it's a night game."
Fitzgerald also commented on the kicking game this week, as Northwestern has relatively few touchbacks this year.
"If we can get it inside the ten, really inside the seven, with around a four second hang time, I actually like that better than a touchback," Fitzgerald said. "You get a chance to get a team inside the twenty."