Before the season, Northwestern fans looked at the schedule calmly. Despite opening the Big Ten season against powerhouses in Wisconsin and Ohio State, the team faced reasonable matchups in its next two games.
The first one veered from the script; the second could be next. NU travels to Iowa City staring at another "must-win" game, with some now wondering whether Pat Fitzgerald's team can qualify for a bowl game. The Wildcats are underdogs.
After last year's dismal showing, Iowa began its recovery process. The Hawkeyes narrowly lost to Northern Illinois, before adding wins against Iowa State and, cough, Minnesota. Even in Saturday's loss at Ohio State, they appeared more than capable of pulling off the upset.
Here we are, with both teams flying in different directions. Despite some claims that NU's season is "lost," Fitzgerald's team has ample opportunity to prove itself—with upcoming games against elite opponents. The Wildcats' rebound starts at Iowa, as they enter a traditionally difficult environment at Kinnick Stadium.
On the offensive line
This offseason, Fitzgerald and the O-line assuaged any worries about their collective inexperience. The best five gelled almost immediately, drawing me to suggest after the opening practice that Mogus, Jorgensen and Park worked as first-time starters.
Regardless of opponent, September went swimmingly. Siemian and Colter stayed upright for the entire month, showcasing their ability to complete the vertical pass. Even Treyvon Green emerged as a viable starting option, and found space behind the team's great surprise.
Then, everything declined, and we could have seen it coming. Nearly everyone aside from Brandon Vitabile–and perhaps Mogus–stumbled in the three losses. Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland labeled Ian Park "the fish" in an ESPN article—referring to the O-line's weakest player.
"We're trying to do what we do, and do it better," Jack Konopka told Steven Goldstein. "Obviously, it hasn't been good enough the past couple of Saturdays."
Looking to re-establish the run against a stout defense, the NU offensive line needs to find its confidence, quickly. I suggested re-adjustments, with Matt Frazier's stint as the first-team right guard misleading; Ian Park just sat out on Tuesday. So with Colter now back, and five games remaining, this group needs much better.
On the wideout drops
This seemed like the most interesting offseason debate: How good were the wide receivers? Last season, we praised their patience, as NU understandably focused on its dominant run game. The receivers blocked and served as anchors in the short-range passing game.
So Tony Jones posted excellent numbers in the first seven games, with Christian Jones and Rashad Lawrence putting forth some strong performances. Yet the drops stunted the NU offense, especially at Wisconsin. It carried over to Minnesota, as reliable superback Dan Vitale dropped two passes.
"It's something you have to fix in practice," Vitale said. "That comes along with confidence. If you drop one, you've got to come back for the next play, brush it off and move on."
That hurt Siemian, as it would hurt Colter should the trend continue. Siemian appeared visibly frustrated throughout Saturday's loss, much of which could be attributed to the sudden drop problems. As Fitzgerald said, the losses fell on execution—and many other fixable things.
On some recoveries
Defensive tackle Sean McEvilly narrowly missed playing in last week's game; we had word that he was cleared. Precaution or not, he returns at an opportune moment. Northwestern needs to slow power back Mark Weisman—another difficult matchup for this defense.
Kain Colter looked close to full strength during this week's practice, shedding the boot and beating defenders. The offense struggled badly in the past two weeks, with Siemian struggling as the sole quarterback option. The Wildcats clearly rely on Colter's skillset, and with his return, their chances of winning shoot up.
"It's nice to get that element back in our game," Dan Vitale said. "The dual threat is huge for us."
And they'll be without Venric Mark once again. The dynamic running back is sidelined while Colter returns, and now rumors of a potentially fractured leg have reached the practice field. Offensive coordinator Mick McCall should still place greater emphasis on the run, given how sharp Stephen Buckley looked in the Minnesota loss.
Could Matt Harris supplant Dwight White as the starting cornerback? Harris played significant time in recent weeks, with the two appearing to split snaps. As White's rough start turned into a long-term problem, the public–and perhaps coaches'–opinion shifted toward Harris. He'll face the obvious "growing pains" but should provide another option if White continues to struggle.
Mike Trumpy's career arc: confusing. I expected some convictive return from him, but instead, the senior carried the ball just seven times for 16 yards in the three losses. He's been the career backup ever since the fateful torn ACL. Out of rhythm and out of his comfort zone, Trumpy is part of the run game's sudden disappearance.
Three stars from practice:
Matt Frazier — Love the effort from NU's backup right guard. Fitzgerald said that Frazier needs to find his consistency. If he does, the redshirt sophomore might work his way into the starting lineup.
Jayme Taylor — He's a future star at superback: sweet hands, solid routes and great football IQ. Mentioned something along these lines earlier this week… My top five freshmen, ranking their career potential: Godwin Igwebuike, Jayme Taylor, Matt Harris, Tommy Fuessel and Eric Joraskie.
Nick VanHoose — It's no easy task for any cornerback to end the decline. After his excellent redshirt freshman season, VanHoose failed to meet expectations in the first seven games. The comfortable starter, though, he's prepared for better.
Stay tuned to PurpleWildcats.com for coverage of this weekend's game.