Sputtering NU offense offers concerns

Northwestern's offense sputtered during Saturday's 22-13 win, the second straight game in which it lacked much production. These struggles are beginning to become a reason for concern.

Northwestern may have started the season 3-0, but a message stuck out during the post-game press conferences – the Wildcats are not playing their best football.

After the defense collapsed against Syracuse, the unit dug deep and held Vanderbilt and Boston College to 13 points apiece. But while the defense has toughened up, the offense has sputtered the past two weeks, particularly in the red zone.

Kicker Jeff Budzien was the hero of the game, knocking in five field goals with a long of 42. But three of those field goals came from inside 20-yard line, which is counter to the message NU has been building on the past few seasons: Finish.

"It was frustrating for us, because we're thinking that we're moving the ball at will and we just get down in the red zone and hit a brick wall," center Brandon Vitabile said. "So for us it was very upsetting and we kept saying we gotta finish, we gotta finish, because that's what build our program on and we emphasize, but we weren't able to do that today in the end."

Pat Fitzgerald credited the offense with moving the ball better this week – NU punted just twice after punting six times against Vanderbilt – but added that "stats are for losers" and said the ‘Cats need to put the ball in the end zone.

"At the end of the day, we've gotta turn those three into seven," Fitzgerald said. "And we've gotta finish those drives. And a lot of those issues that we had in those drives were self-inflicted."

The self-inflicted wounds included a fumble on 4th and short that ultimately led to a BC touchdown drive, and quarterback Kain Colter overthrowing a wide-open Christian Jones in the end zone.

"The one on Christian is kind of eating me up," Colter said. "I'm not the tallest guy, I couldn't really see over the line, and I just threw the ball like a little girl. It's just something to get better."

Part of the problem may be a lack of big plays in the passing game, as NU is without a passing touchdown in its last two games, and has only three total touchdowns. Two of those scores – a long run from Colter against Vanderbilt and a long run from Mike Trumpy against BC – came near the very end of the game to secure victory. Despite the lack of scoring production, Fitz was pleased with the performance of his quarterbacks.

"I think from a standpoint, when I look at their stat line together, combined what were they, 30 for 40? That's pretty good," Fitzgerald said. "I like that we're raising expectations but I'm also a realist and we're not going to make every play and it's not going to be perfect."

Regardless of his confidence in the quarterbacks, Fitz stressed that the team may be 3-0, but NU has yet to play a full game to its potential. And given that NU beat three BCS conference opponents, the room for improvement leaves the team with a high ceiling for success.

"I can't stress this enough, we're a work in progress, we're not where we want to be yet," Fitzgerald said. "We have not put together three phases of 60-minute football yet and until we do that I don't think anybody is going to be very satisfied with our performances. So hopefully, we can just continue to work hard to get better in practice, that's all we can do."

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