Justin Jackson may be the best player in this Wildcat offense. The true freshman was absolutely fantastic Saturday, toeing the sideline and shifting between the guards to 92 rushing yards and a 21-yard touchdown burst in the third quarter. Jackson was clearly the team’s No. 1 back, and was hard to bring down in open field. Solomon Vault, meanwhile, supplied Northwestern’s first two scores. This running back tandem is the program’s biggest bright spot right now, and both have earned more reps with impressive speed and field vision.
The offensive line
Yes, it was playing against an inferior opponent, but NU’s front line held up for the first time all year against the Leathernecks, allowing just one sack and one additional quarterback hit. Trevor Siemian was frighteningly bad, but this time it wasn’t on the protection.
Odenigbo pieced together his most complete game to date, with two sacks and three forced fumbles on Trenton Norvell. The passing-down specialist was quick off the line and aggressive in the pocket, offering one of the better individual performances I’ve ever seen at NU. It will need similar efforts against conference opponents.
After getting picked on in the Wildcats’ first two games, VanHoose responded with three first-half pass breakups and a leaping momentum-halting interception in the third quarter. He added seven tackles. Northwestern’s safeties were erratic to start this game, but VanHoose held things together.
Chris Gradone and the special teams unit
The real MVP. Gradone had a horrible start to 2014, but bounced back with six punts inside the 20 yard line and three inside the 10. He maxed out at 55 yards, and pinned Western Illinois at its own one-yard line midway through the fourth quarter. NU’s special teams were great, with Keith Watkins adding a blocked punt early and Max Chapman stuffing a field goal before halftime.
Did Siemian attempt a pass deeper than 10 yards? The senior put up a laughable 117 yards on 25 pass attempts against an FCS defense, and seemed to cling to his pre-snap underneath read on every play. Siemian held the ball for an eternity, lacked accuracy on third down passes, and generally looked petrified of making a mistake. Nick Medline will elaborate on this, but a quarterback change should at least be considered after Siemian missed men downfield and lacked confidence against a bad defense.
NU wide receivers
It obviously wasn’t all their fault with Siemian under center, but Northwestern’s wideouts combined for just four catches. Kyle Prater couldn’t reprise his performance against NIU, Cameron Dickerson left early with an injury, and Miles Shuler caught one ball for four yards.
He continues to disappoint. Vitale caught just two passes for 15 yards, and once again got lost in the passing game. A lot of this can be attributed to the team’s joke of playcalling, but Vitale’s promising freshman season feels like an eternity ago.
There wasn’t much to knock about the defense, but Henry whiffed on Western Illinois’ only touchdown pass. The Wildcats’ center field coverage still looks weak.
Mick McCall and the Northwestern game plan
I wrote a column after the Northern Illinois loss blasting the team for playing like it had something to lose. The Wildcats spent two weeks practicing under intense conditions and seemed to install a slight culture change. The result? Another cringeworthy day of conservative play calls and fear of making a mistake. Northwestern called gut runs on third-and-two then fourth-and-one twice. It assumed the I-formation on short yardage all afternoon. I’ll write more about this tonight, but the team’s cautious, unimaginative play calling is going to get absolutely demolished by Big Ten teams.