Igwebuike glanced over to Walsh, as if to say, you take it. Walsh turned back to look at Igwebuike, hoping that the safety would speak up. Neither said anything for a while before Walsh finally leaned forward to answer.
That was the generally somber tone of the players after the Wildcats’ 33-24 loss to No. 10 Wisconsin on Saturday. Clayton Thorson, Garrett Dickerson, Igwebuike and Walsh answer questions in quiet, almost funeral voices. They were all too aware of what the Wildcats had lost less than an hour before on the turf at Camp Randall Stadium.
These Wildcats had lost just a few weeks before, of course, humiliated, 41-14 at Duke, in fact. But after that non-conference game, they talked about the fact that all of their goals were all still in front of them.
This one, though, was a Big Ten game. The Wildcats were now 0-1 and, more importantly, behind Wisconsin in the Big Ten West race. The Wildcats had dreams of contending for the Big Ten West this season, yet after one game they face the daunting reality that they’ll have to beat Wisconsin by two games in the standings to get to the title game in Indianapolis. And No. 4 Penn State – which had just opened up a 21-0 lead on Indiana on the TV screen to the left of the players on the podium – is coming to town next week.
So this one hurt, this one stung. This one all but took one of their goals away.
“I still feel like we haven’t put together a full game,” lamented Walsh, who, like Igwebuike and Dickerson, is in his final season at NU. “We’re not playing to what we’re capable of. As Godwin said, it’s a game of inches. We just need to make another play.”
It would have taken more than one more play. It’s true that this game, like most in the Big Ten, came down to a handful of plays. It’s just that Wisconsin made them all.
That’s what irked head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Unlike his players, he was more ticked off than downtrodden. He saw a potential victory squandered.
Fitzgerald looked at the two failed third-and-1s in the first half and seetheed. The first, what he called “a golden opportunity,” was at the Wisconsin 15, after Jazz Peavy fumbled the ball on Wisconsin’s first play from scrimmage and Trae Williams recovered it at the Wisconsin 24. On third and a yard, Justin Jackson was stoned and lost a yard, and the Wildcats had to settle for a 34-yard Charlie Kuhbander field goal.
“No excuse,” said a fiery Fitzgerald when talking about both third-and-1 plays. “That’s the difference in the game. Good for them (Wisconsin). They did a great job defensively. I tip my hat to them. It’s embarrassing, quite frankly. It’s embarrassing. Third down-and-1 and you get your lips knocked off.”
The Wildcat offense struggled throughout the game as it has for much of the season, converting just 3 of 15 third downs, rushing for only 25 yards and allowing eight sacks for 55 yards in losses.
Fitzgerald said that the sacks were a combination of offensive line breakdowns, receivers failing to get open and Thorson holding the ball too long. Add three quarterback hurries to the equation and Thorson was dropped or harassed on 11 of his 45 attempts, or one for every four times he dropped back to pass.
Northwestern’s first five possessions of the second half were what bothered Fitzgerald the most. The drives, if you can call them that, resulted in five punts, 10 total yards and a pick-6 that turned out to be the game-winning score.
“When you go three-and-out and you’re over there drinking Gatorade for half the quarter, life’s pretty good,” said Fitzgerald, mocking his offense’s ineffectiveness.
“Two losses that have had the same recipe: Inability to pick up third downs,” he continued. “And at Duke, it was too many third-and-longs. Today it was a combination of our protection, a combination of our throws, a combination of our calls, dropped some balls.”
Thorson took accountability, even if he didn’t have anywhere to throw the ball on many occasions.
“I held the ball too long on a few of those,” he said. “I’ve got to get the ball out, whether it’s throwing it away, whether it’s making quicker decision. But it starts with me and I’ve got to do a better job for those guys.”
It was fitting that the game was clinched on a sack for a safety on a play that Thorson admitted he should have gotten rid of the ball, “ no ifs, ands or buts.”
While the offense was undoubtedly the main culprit for Northwestern’s downfall, the defense wasn’t entirely without blame.
To its credit, the Wildcat defense achieved its first priority: stopping Wisconsin’s punishing ground game. The top rushing team in the Big Ten at 275.3 yards per game managed just 109 against Northwestern, and Big Ten rushing leader Jonathan Taylor ran for 80 yards, far below his 146.0 per game average. It also came up with two sacks and three turnovers.
Yet big plays proved to be the defense’s undoing in the second half, and miscommunication was the reason.
Take the 61-yard touchdown pass to Quntez Cephus that changed the complex of the game in the third quarter. Northwestern was nursing a 10-7 third-quarter lead when Alex Hornibrook threw the deep ball to Cephus who was running alone down the middle of the field and took the ball all the way down to the NU 11. One play later, Taylor scored a TD and Wisconsin had the lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“We had bad communication and the guy was wide-ass open,” bristled Fitzgerald. “Crazy concept. That’s what happens when guys don’t communicate this guy goes down the field and he’s wide open.”
What made Fitzgerald angry was that Northwestern should have been prepared for the play. “That was a case where we had miscommunication on a play, on a rep we actually practiced this week.” He then rhythmically pounded his water bottle on podium six times for emphasis.
That was one of three big pass plays – a 32-yarder to Danny Davis and a 33-yarder to A.J. Taylor were the others – that set up scores and turned a three-point Northwestern lead to a 24-10 deficit in a little more than 12 minutes spanning the third and fourth quarters.
What made matters worse is that the defense’s mistakes coincided with the offense’s implosion. Wisconsin outscored Northwestern 14-0 and outgained them 135-8 in the third quarter.
With Penn State’s offensive firepower coming to town next week, Northwestern faces the very real possibility of an 0-2 start in Big Ten play and being relegated to spoiler status in the conference in the first week of October. Yet the season is far from over.
After the first two games, things lighten up considerably. If the Wildcats can shore up their inconsistencies and gain some rhythm offensively, they could easily wind up with a winning conference record.
“We realize there were some mistakes we made today that cost us, but we realize that we are still a great team,” said Igwebuike. “We have a lot of ball to play.”
That’s true. Saturday’s game counts as just one loss in the standings. But in terms of what this team hoped to accomplish, it may have cost them a bit more.