Preview: Northern Illinois

What will the Wildcats need to do to get their season on track? After last weekend's bewildering loss to Cal, Sylvan Lane looks ahead to Saturday matchup with Northern Illinois.

Let’s cut to the chase: Northwestern needs a win tomorrow. Badly.

It doesn’t need to be a blowout, and honestly, it doesn’t need to be pretty. The Wildcats’ task is simple: Prove that last week was a fluke and that they’re capable of taking on the slew of talented teams they’ll face this year.

But of course, it’s easier said than done. Doubts linger about how consistent Trevor Siemian can be while concern grows over Northwestern’s deteriorating offense now that wide receiver Tony Jones is injured. And let’s not forget about the secondary, which seemed out of sync and unprepared last week.

The good thing is it’s early, and Northwestern has time to iron out these kinks before it heads into Big Ten play. This how they can get it done.

Get back to its roots

Kain Colter and Venric Mark might be gone, and the zone read might be that much harder to pull off with Siemian behind center. Even so, Northwestern can still keep throw opposing defenses off by taking advantage of its offensive weapons.

Remember, Northwestern’s success in 2012 happened because Pat Fitzgerald and Mick McCall were able to seamlessly switch plays and formations, putting players in the situations that suited them best. Northwestern’s struggles in 2013 were borne from an inability to that.

It all starts with Siemian hitting receivers. Get him going, and keep defenses honest with Treyvon Green’s power and Justin Jackson’s elusiveness. Keep things short and quick, not deep and desperate. While Siemian’s got the power to reach deep receivers, the accuracy doesn’t come as easy.

After all, Northwestern lost last week to an under-equipped team that kept them honest by working in two quarterbacks. Sound familiar?

Sync up its secondary

Last spring, cornerback Nick VanHoose told me that he and the secondary were focusing on aggressiveness and communication, the keys to the unit’s success last year.

“It's unacceptable not to communicate and to give up explosion plays,” he said, “So now we've fixed that.”

It looks like it’s time for a tune up. Cal quarterbacks lit the unit up for 281 yards last weekend, but the box score doesn’t get to why the loss was so alarming for Northwestern. VanHoose had trouble early on sticking to his man, and the unit suffered from constant misreads and missed pickups.

Northwestern’s in danger of falling into a similar trap against NIU, which can also pull a tandem quarterback scheme if it chooses (even though redshirt junior Matt McIntosh was named the official starter). As the defensive line still struggles to pressure quarterbacks, fixing the secondary is the primary concern.

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