People were calling this a classic trap game for Northwestern. The Wildcats were going on the road after pulling off an upset win to face a team fresh off its bye. Minnesota's smothering front seven posed a bad matchup for the NU offense, and with discussion of a Big Ten West title fomenting, it seemed only natural that the team dropped a winnable game.
But the "trap game" designation often comes with a connotation of bad luck or unpreparedness. Northwestern was neither of those Saturday. Rather, this was an (equally trite) "statement game," and with expectations for the Wildcats rapidly rising and solidifying, they had to prove whether a two-game winning streak was indicative of their talent and sustainable beyond October.
Aside from the dropped fourth down ball by Kyle Prater and the 100-yard kickoff return by Myrick, there wasn't much to point a finger at. Trevor Siemian threw just one interception (on the game-ending Hail Mary), put up 269 yards while completing more than 60 percent of his passes, and fit sharp passes into tight windows all afternoon. Justin Jackson played like a durable No. 1 back, and the offensive line continued its modest resurgence. The defense held the vaunted Gophers rushing attack to just 3.1 yards per carry, and Northwestern's secondary was stable outside of the 52-yard bomb allowed to Maxx Williams in the first half.
Nobody played poor enough to assign total blame. Rather, every unit played almost as expected. This team does have a ceiling; so long as the offense struggles to consistently put up points and lacks a big-play threat, Northwestern is going to be competitive but rarely overwhelming.
For as great as NU looked against Penn State and Wisconsin, both supposedly better teams looked downright awful. Though its defense was a notch less dominant, the team didn't look all that different Saturday than it did in its two conference wins. Minnesota was on its game this time, while the Nittany Lions and Badgers were not. Siemian missed some throws, the receivers dropped some balls, and the defense was stout aside from a few long plays. The Wildcats were able to overcome turnovers and big play breakdowns through Ifeadi Odenigbo at Penn State and Godwin Igbwebuike and Justin Jackson against Wisconsin, but when the playcalling limits offensive upside and the opponent plays steady enough to score just three times, those mistakes become insurmountable.
There's certainly still hope for Northwestern, which looks like it can at very least stay in games against good teams. But the winning streak that was snapped against the Golden Gophers was exactly that: a streak. The "statement game" revealed something hard to digest, but something we probably already knew. The Wildcats are a good team that's very beatable if a surprise individual performance isn't delivered, and without taking risks in playcalling, wins are more contingent on an opponent slipping up and the Wildcats taking advantage.
Saturday, being just good enough made NU look awfully beatable.