Justin Jackson as lead back
Treyvon Green has seen his workload decrease every week. Solomon Vault and Warren Long can account for maybe a combined seven carries right now. This burgeoning Northwestern running game is entirely Justin Jackson’s. The true freshman took an exhausting 33 carries for 162 yards Saturday, and in just his second Big Ten game, Jackson looked like a reliable workhorse that kept pace with Melvin Gordon. His open field speed was as advertised, his shifts and cuts lead to several second-level runs, and his patience was excellent as NU’s O-line put together its best game to date. With the passing game still in flux, Jackson is the team’s go-to offensive producer, and as we’ve been seeing for several weeks now, he is the one pacing this unit.
Dan Vitale excelling in play action
Vitale only caught two balls against a stout Wisconsin linebacking unit, but his second reception -- a smooth third-and-three conversion off play action -- could not have been dialed up any better. Vitale didn’t get any bubble screens or handoffs like in previous games, nor did he streak downfield on passng downs. He was used in play action and close sets, where he’s most effective. This should continue against Minnesota as the NU running game commands more respect from opposing defenses.
Ifeadi Odenigbo’s dominance
For the third straight game, Ifeadi Odenigbo disrupted the pocket and created a crucial turnover. On Saturday, the defensive end hit Joel Stave’s hand on a third down throw, leading to a Jimmy Hall interception and, one play later, the decisive Miles Shuler touchdown. Odenigbo pushed Badger linemen into the pocket all game, and is looking like Northwestern’s best pass rusher.
Once again, the Northwestern secondary completely quieted an opposing passing attack. One week after making Christian Hackenberg look like early-season Trevor Siemian, the Wildcats held two Wisconsin quarterbacks to a paltry 138 yards through the air. Godwin Igwebuike’s three interceptions won the game for Northwestern, while Nick VanHoose, Matthew Harris and Jimmy Hall were excellent in pass coverage. NU’s secondary is for real.
Gradone for Guy
Yes, we’re suggesting that the punter might be the team MVP right now, and no, that’s not facetious. Gradone pinned the Badgers inside the 10 yard-line twice in the first half alone Saturday, and he continues to give the Wildcats a huge edge in field position.
Trevor Siemian playing efficiently
Siemian is quietly piecing together a few inspired performances against conference defenses. A couple of overthrows and the horrible interception against Penn State were cause for concern, but on Saturday, Siemian didn’t turn the ball over once and generally looked sharp on short throws. He didn’t try much downfield, save for the 35-yard completion to Tony Jones, but he never looked flustered, either. An efficient Siemian pairs well with a running game capable of big plays.
Dominant run blocking
The front line allowed three sacks on Siemian Saturday, but it also opened huge holes for Justin Jackson against a top-20 run defense. Pat Fitzgerald specficailly praised Matt Frazier’s improvement in his postgame press conference, but the entire offensive line looks much improved in run blocking, as well as Dan Vitale on the edge. Minnesota is allowing a stingy 3.6 yards per carry to opposing rushers, so let’s see how this holds next weekend.
Three picks per start is not exactly sustainable, but Igwebuike should play over Traveon Henry once Ibraheim Campbell returns from injury. Like PSU breakout Anthony Walker, Fitzgerald was hesitant to ring praise for Igwebuike, and mentioned a few vague “fundamental mistakes.” But Igwebuike was obviously fantastic, and he should be used in some capacity against the Golden Gophers.