Northwestern football’s turnaround a matter of time

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Northwestern plays Penn State in a football game in 2013.

By Jordan Ray

In Northwestern’s first five games, it allowed only 35 points.

The Wildcats gave up 106 in their three games since.

The defense that carried the Wildcats to a 5-0 start and No. 13 ranking in the Associated Press poll unraveled down the stretch as the team lost two straight and almost a third entering the bye week.

“When you don’t play well for a couple of weeks, everybody kind of casts you aside,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You look at the way people are talking about Stanford. We shut ’em down. … We went to Durham, and we shut them down. That’s the team that we’re capable of.”

With Penn State (7-2, 4-1 Big Ten) coming to Ryan Field on Saturday to start the back half of the Big Ten Conference schedule, it’s all a matter of time for Northwestern — time of possession, that is.

In its last three games, Northwestern (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) ranked second-to-last in the country in time of possession, holding the ball about 22 minutes per game. The Wildcats are undefeated this season when they win time of possession and 1-2 when they don’t.

During a 40-10 loss to Iowa, the Wildcats surrendered a season-worst 492 yards, as their defense again spent almost twice as long on the field as their offense.

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Chart details how Northwestern’s time of possession has related to its wins and losses this season. (Jordan Ray/Medill)


“I think (the defense) wore down,” said Dave Eanet, Northwestern’s play-by-play announcer for WGN Radio.

When Northwestern holds the ball longer than its opponents, it allows only seven points per game. When it doesn’t, that number balloons to 35.3 points per game.

Don’t just blame the defense.

“We’ve got to stay on the field longer,” quarterback Clayton Thorson said. “That comes down to running the football and passing it consistently.”

Against Nebraska, Northwestern managed to eke out a 30-28 win thanks to a pair of long Thorson runs that set up touchdowns and cornerback Nick VanHoose’s interception returned for a score.

“Those three plays were the biggest plays in the game, really,” Big Ten analyst and former Nebraska wide receiver Matt Davison said.

But big plays don’t exactly solve the clock issue.

Nebraska still won time of possession, and the Wildcats gave up their third-highest point total of the season.

“I think that’s been the narrative the last few years with a team like Oregon, who scores so fast,” Davison said. “This is a different scenario because, with the way Northwestern’s offense had been playing the last couple of weeks, heck, they would take points any way they could get it.”

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Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson is pictured. (Big Ten)

Then again, don’t just blame the offense, either.

“We had some very uncharacteristic self-inflicted wounds on third down,” Fitzgerald said. “That, to me, was probably the most disappointing aspect of the (Nebraska game).”

Nebraska converted nine of 20 third-down opportunities against the Wildcats.

“We put in a couple of new little things, not major, but they ended up looking like they were major as we watched the tape,” Fitzgerald said. “That aggravates me because we’re better than that.”

Third down has been an issue during the Wildcats’ slide. Northwestern’s last three opponents have converted on third down 48 percent of the time, a 28-percentage-point increase from Northwestern’s first five games.

The good news for Northwestern is that Penn State ranks second-to-last in Big Ten games in third-down conversions (28.6 percent).

“We’ve just got to get back to doing what we do,” linebacker Anthony Walker said. “We have to win on third down, and that’s our main goal. If we can win on third down, we’ll be able to beat a lot of teams.”

Photo at top: Northwestern plays Penn State in a football game in 2013. The Wildcats and Nittany Lions face off Saturday at Ryan Field. (Penn State photo via Flickr)