It played out like a caricature of the recently anemic Wildcat offense: sack, protection breakdown and three-yard scramble, near-sack turned incompletion, sack. With the last shreds of the 2013 season on the line, Northwestern couldn't give Kain Colter more than a second in the pocket.
"It looks like we blew protection on that fourth down play. We have to fix things on offense, we're beating ourselves," Pat Fitzgerald said. "Very disappointing to say the least."
There are plenty of factors playing into the Wildcat offense underperforming over the past month: in the fourth quarter of Ohio State and against Wisconsin, it was the playcalling; with Minnesota, it was the injuries. But Saturday afternoon perfectly captured the main thing holding Northwestern to just 33 points over its last three losses. The offensive line is getting manhandled.
Twenty-one sacks in four Big Ten games, six more against the Hawkeyes and five on Colter. The running game once again couldn't find holes in the middle, and Colter looked panicked on every third down, immediately ditching the pass and tucking the ball at the sign of a black jersey (or three) lunging toward him. The offensive line needs to make a change, schematically or with a few substitutions, if Northwestern wants to even win a conference game this fall, let alone become bowl eligible.
Being physically unprepared was expected; NU lost three starters to graduation last spring, including standouts Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward. But being mentally unprepared at this point is inexcusable: the Cats' line was flagged three times, with two holds coming on Jack Konopka alone. Add in two Dan Vitale penalties and you can add undisciplined to the lengthy list of negative adjectives describing this front line.
"We shot ourselves in the foot with penalties, that's just a recipe for disaster," Colter said. "You have to go back to work. That's all you can do."
Northwestern's O-line won't be able to do all that much more as the season rolls on. Aside from seeing Matt Frazier plugged in at guard, the unit didn't make any in-game adjustments, and will still be the same mismatched group against Nebraska next weekend. Salvaging anything from the rest of this year starts up front; no matter how fast or athletic the Wildcats are at skill positions, it can all come crumbling down if they don't have time to use those skills.
In 2012, Colter's scrambles were thrilling because they set the tone of the game and provided exciting offense on the edge. Saturday, those scrambles mean something entirely different.