Turnovers continue to plague Northwestern offense
Northwestern's defense did the only scoring on Saturday in Madison during the Wildcats' 35-7 loss to No. 20 Wisconsin.
The sight of a Northwestern defense doing everything it can to overcome an offense that can't get out of its own way is a familiar one for Northwestern fans. Even last season, when the Cats finished with a 7-2 record, the defense did the heavy lifting. NU's offense did just barely enough to not waste the efforts of one of the best defenses in the country.
The 2021 Wildcat defense isn't anywhere near the level of the 2020 defense, but that was to be expected with eight key contributors leaving the program. But, unlike their offensive counterparts, the defense has shown improvement over the last several weeks.
Early in the season, the defense was repeatedly torched for big plays in losses to Michigan State, Duke and, especially, in a 56-7 blowout loss to Nebraska that turned out to be rock bottom and a turning point for the unit.
After the ensuing bye week, a combination of scheme changes and inexperienced players finding their footing have helped Northwestern's defense start playing well enough for NU to win some games. They held Michigan to just 10 points at halftime before wearing down, and Iowa put up just 17 points two weeks ago.
But NU didn't win any of those games. They're 1-4 since the bye week and mired in a four-game losing streak.
The real root of Northwestern's problems are on the other side of the ball. The Cats' offense is averaging 8.25 points per game during this four-game slide. They've turned the ball over 10 times during that stretch, including seven the last two weeks.
Asking your defense to hold opponents to one score or less while also continually forcing them to defend short fields is not what head coach Pat Fitzgerald has in mind when he talks about complementary football.
One side of the ball for NU has gotten a bit better and has been holding up their end of the bargain for the most part. The other side has not.
Fitzgerald points to the offense's inability to finish drives as one of the reasons they've had so much trouble putting points on the board.
"We had ample opportunities on Saturday," he said. While two trips into the red zone may not be considered to be ample by everyone, the point he is making is that the Wildcats didn't get any points out of either one.
The most striking opportunity that NU had was on their opening drive. The Andrew Marty-led offense marched right down the field, even getting a gift when a tipped pass on fourth down floated right into the waiting arms of Evan Hull, who was able to move the chains.
None of that mattered, though. From the Wisconsin 9-yard line, Marty forced the ball to a tightly-covered Stephon Robinson Jr., and it was picked off by Caesar Williams. The pass might as well have been intended for Williams.
Mistakes like that have continued to pop up for Northwestern this season. Marty's six interceptions in the last two games have been disastrous. Turnovers like those have been the reason for the offense's demise this season in Fitzgerald's eyes.
"We just haven't taken care of the ball consistently enough," he said in an understatement.
It was always going to be difficult to move the ball against a Wisconsin defense that is ranked No. 1 in the country for a reason. The Badgers had 12 tackles for loss in addition to the four takeaways on Saturday.
Getting points on that first drive would have been huge for Northwestern. It still would have been an uphill battle to win the game, but coming away from that drive with no points took all of the wind out of Northwestern's sails.
Wisconsin responded with a 96-yard touchdown drive and it really felt like the game was over at that point. Left tackle Peter Skoronski knew it was going to be hard to stack positive plays together against the Badgers' defense. He said the offense was in rhythm on that opening drive, which allowed them to move the ball down the field. They weren't able to recapture that rhythm and had only one other drive of more than 30 yards -- their other red-zone trip that ended with Charlie Kuhbander missing a 32-yard field goal.
Taking advantage of opportunities is what linebacker Bryce Gallagher said has been the key to the defense's improvement, as well as their goal moving forward.
"We have to be more consistent and make plays when they present themselves," he said.
As Fitzgerald said, plays have presented themselves to the Cats' offense during this losing streak. But poor quarterback play and what Fitzgerald dubs "self-inflicted wounds" keep popping up to sabotage drives and kill scoring opportunities.
Whereas, the defense has improved, the offense has, at best, stayed the same. The numbers would say that that side of the ball has gotten worse.
It could have been said at anytime during the six previous years, and you can say it again now: Northwestern would greatly benefit from their offense taking a cue from the defense.