NU offense looks to change the tune

Northwestern's offense is loaded with plenty of talent, but that has not been reflected in the unit's on-field results. The Wildcats are optimistic they can change the tune moving forward.

Asked to share his thoughts about the Northwestern offense, wide receiver Tony Jones offered a fair assessment.

"The emphasis is on third-down conversions," Jones said. "That's where we're struggling right now. We're definitely working on a balanced attack, establishing the run game and being able to pass the ball."

Jones covered about everything in the response, showing that for the Wildcats, there is much work to be done. Pundits criticized another dismal late-game performance from NU in the 29-28 loss to Nebraska, but the problems run much deeper on offense.

Talent has never been an issue. Blessed with two seemingly capable quarterbacks, the NU offense rolled in several early-season wins.

Not only that, Venric Mark emerged as an elite running back. The junior needs only 90 yards Saturday to become the first NU tailback to reach the 1000-yard plateau since Tyrell Sutton in 2006.

Yet it was a mediocre offensive performance that helped Nebraska rally to seize the victory. Senior running back Mike Trumpy said the offense simply failed to do enough to earn the win.

"We all know that we're a great offense," Trumpy said. "We need to execute more and make plays. We talked about how this past game, that one play makes a difference."

Sophomore quarterback Trevor Siemian has struggled as the primary passer in recent outings. After breaking onto the scene with an efficient 300-yard game against Indiana, Siemian completed 47 percent of his passes over the past three weeks – with an unsettling 3.27 yards per attempt.

During that span, no NU receiver reached 50 yards in a single game. The deep pass disappeared from the conservative game plan. Save for a 26-yard strike to Tony Jones and a 24-yard toss to Rashad Lawrence, Siemian has struggled to show rapport with receivers beyond the first-down marker.

Jones said he and Siemian plan to work on their chemistry in practice this week.

"There's some room for improvement. I think that's on the both of us. When Trevor throws my way, he's counting on me to make that play. Regardless of where he puts the ball, that's my job to come up with the completion.

"We'll spend more time on it this week. Having that deep-ball threat would definitely spread the defense out and keep them honest."

Fitzgerald attributed the lethargic passing attack of late to a "combination" of poor plays from both Siemian and the receivers. Still, he gave credit to the opposing defenses – a fair comment considering the Nebraska and Penn State secondaries rank among the best units in the Big Ten.

Even the rushing attack floundered in Saturday's loss. Most of the damage inflicted by Mark came on his 80-yard touchdown run early in the second half. That accounted for about two-thirds of his yardage output. Kain Colter also struggled to find space, gaining only 35 yards on the ground.

Despite the recent losses, Fitzgerald sees room for optimism looking forward.

"I think we're trying to have as much balance as we can," he said. "I can nitpick one play here and one play there… We've been pretty consistent throughout the year."

Jones agreed, and he expects the game plan will be similar heading into a pivotal matchup with Iowa. It all comes down to the offense making plays.

"I don't see much changing," Jones said. "Other than the results."

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