Northwestern's third quarter: Consistent rough hits on Kain Colter, cautious secondary beaten by Western Michigan quarterback Tyler Van Tubbergen, one sloppy lost fumble and another they barely recovered. The score had changed in favor of the Wildcats, but some struggles lingered.
"A win's a win," some will say. This one, however, did very little to instill confidence. In terms of execution, NU regressed against a team beaten last week by Nicholls State. Even the 38-17 win felt dismal.
NU will go undefeated in non-conference play–with Maine the lone "obstacle"–and face the Buckeyes in three weeks. If Pat Fitzgerald's team plays like this on Oct. 5, Ohio State should outmuscle them and win easily.
There are fixable problems. When else will the reliable Mike Trumpy get stripped on such a basic play? Will Jeff Budzien miss another field goal this season? Football is the ultimate high-variable sport; these things happen. Yet we leave worried, for good reason.
The Nick VanHoose/Dwight White cornerback tandem has yet to inspire any confidence. This isn't an overreaction to one game; it's a justified reaction to three.
VanHoose will likely admit his disappointment. One year ago, we praised the then-redshirt freshman for his poise and lofty potential. Injuries were the only source of worry. But he hasn't recovered from a poor opener against the "Bear Raid" offense, and was left visibly frustrated after yielding another touchdown on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Dwight White might generate more anxiety than any other NU player from recent seasons. It's not entirely his fault. Just a redshirt freshman, he flashed his ability—but that would have been best used in dime packages for now. Thrust into the starter's role, the results are lacking. He was torched for a 75-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, making this look even more painful. Even true freshman Matt Harris knocked down a ball. (Started?) Van Tubbergen's 39 percent completion rate wasn't indicative of the secondary play.
After the long game, we also could have forgotten the early offensive struggles. The first two contests were only bliss. The passing game excelled, with both quarterbacks rolling over Syracuse in a 30-for-37 combined effort.
But against Western Michigan, NU veered away from the balanced attack that defined its first two games. They exposed the opponent's weakness rather than cementing strengths, leading to the first quarter that can't happen when the team faces elite opponents.
Kain Colter tossed an egregious interception, looking past a wide-open Rashad Lawrence before throwing into double coverage. The offensive line finally looked vulnerable, and that lasted the entire first quarter.
Enough worked out. Christian Jones returned from a minor upper body injury and had an excellent game. Ibraheim Campbell continued his All-Big Ten season, with Treyvon Green's comeback another inspiring story.
With Ohio State looming, though, NU has three weeks to right some of the problems. If not, they'll be on the wrong end.