Offense failing to gain flight

Northwestern needs to iron out offensive inconsistencies in order to compete with the best, writes Sylvan Lane.

Treyvon Green explodes through the offensive line for a 16-yard carry to start the 3rd quarter. Soon after, Mike Trumpy follows suit with a 28-yard run of his own. The offense has been scraping and clawing at yardage today, coming up empty far too often against an FCS team. But with the Wildcats at Maine's 18-yard line it looks like they've finally found their rhythm.

Then Trumpy loses two yards and five yards on consecutive runs. 3rd-and-17. Jack Konopka jumps off the line too early. 3rd-and-22. Green rushes for a yard. 4th-and-21. Jeff Budzien misses a 49-yard field goal.

It all comes to a screeching halt.

To make matters worse, we've heard the screeching and have seen the wheels fall off the Northwestern offense in critical moments all season long. The thing is, the Wildcats are still 4-0, have scored at least 40 points in two games and came within five points of 40 in the other two.

However, the Wildcats have still suffered from an inability to maintain momentum on offense. Against Maine, an FCS team that Northwestern should have dominated, they turned the ball over twice, punted four times and held the ball for almost seven fewer minutes than their opponent, who out-gained them by six yards.

After the game, Pat Fitzgerald said he was hesitant to pinpoint specifics without analyzing the film, but blamed his team's offensive struggles on a lack of execution, self-inflicted wounds and missed opportunities.

"We probably missed a couple of shots," he said. "We had some guys that probably would have broken the game wide open, and we're going to need to continue to refine those as we move forward. We've just got to execute better when we cross the 50 as an offense."

We also saw flashes of the same stop-and-go tendencies against Syracuse, when after scoring on six of their first seven drives in the first half, the Wildcats failed to score on five of their last seven. That span included three consecutive punts. Then there was Western Michigan, when Northwestern didn't score until the second quarter.

In all of those games, Northwestern still won handily. But if you take away Collin Ellis' two pick-six's from the Cal game, it goes into overtime. Take away Damien Proby's and Dean Lowry's from Saturday's game, and that score is tied, too.

Of course, it's easy to nitpick when Northwestern is ranked, 4-0 and is loaded with talent. This team and its coaches should be able to right this ship, and Fitzgerald sees it as a completely coachable issue.

"We've just got to execute cleaner on offense," Fitzgerald said. "We have to take a look hard as coaches [and figure out] what are we doing schematically, [are] we putting too many things in and are we trying to do too many things, so that we just can't execute?

"Today it just looked like some discipline and fundamental technique things to me, and those are all coachable and correctable."

Northwestern can compete with every team left on its schedule, but if the inconsistencies that marred the first four wins show up in the next eight games, that screeching sound you hear will be replaced by the air whistling by the Wildcats as the they plummet down the polls and Big Ten standings.

NU has two weeks to prepare for what will be its biggest test of the season. The flaws are evident, and now it's up to Fitzgerald and his staff to repair them.

"It's not about style as much as it's about substance," he said. "We can only go 1-0 each week and that's what we've done, so, you know, we've put ourselves in position now and hopefully we continue to improve."

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