In a strange turn of events, Northwestern's loss Saturday was on the offense.
That's not to say the Wildcats offense has been spotless this season, but it has been the driving force behind its first four wins and strong showing against Ohio State. Saturday, in a 35-6 loss to Wisconsin in Madison, it was completely silent.
"I thought our defense, for the most part, especially in the first 35, 40 minutes of the game, gave us a chance to win the game," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said during his weekly press conference Monday. "We just didn't execute cleanly on offense. ... Felt like it was an anomole, felt like we didn't execute cleanly, had plays there to be made and kind of had two out of three phases that were working, one third that didn't get it done and that's what cost us the game. We'd have good protection, a good throw, we'd drop the ball. We'd have a little lapse in protection, the route would be open, we couldn't make throws. So so on and so forth. Like I said after the game, I give a lot of credit to our opponent. Those self-inflicted wounds against good football teams we can't have."
It was far and away the worst Fitzgerald's offense has looked this season. The Wildcats didn't once find the end zone, posted just 241 yards and saw rough days from the dynamic quarterback combo of Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Injuries to Colter and running back Venric Mark knocked that pair out of most of the game, and the Badgers recorded seven sacks, this after the Cats were sacked five times vs. Ohio State.
"I think at times we had guys that were open, we didn't get the ball out of our hands. There were some times when we had one-man breakdowns in the protection. They ran a little three-man game and got the quarterback twice on that," Fitzgerald said. "We've got to do a better job schematically because we'll see that again. ... For the most part, I think it was a combination. I think all 12 are involved, us as a staff and 11 guys on the field."
But Fitzgerald didn't stop his airing of the greivances there. It seemed what really bothered Fitzgerald was dropped passes by his receiving corps, part of what contributed to a listless day from the Northwestern passing game.
"We've got to give our guys better route combinations to take advantage of what they were doing. We had way too many drops. That's the bottom line. Those balls are caught, it's a probably different momentum for our offense," he said. "In heavyweight battles, those are the momentum plays you have to make. And it could just be a simple little out cut, but that's a first down and you're keeping the thing moving and keeping the ball moving and keeping our defense off the field. When you have the discrepency in the time of possession that we did, you put your defense in a no-win situation. ... We've just got to execute, we've got to pitch and catch. We should've been able to do that all day."
Now, the defense wasn't entirely blameless in a rout such as this one. Wisconsin piled up 527 total offensive yards and 35 points. The running back combo of Melvin Gordon and James White had a big day, as did quarterback Joel Stave. And Northwestern's defense was hardly bad in previous weeks, but it did have a tendency to give up plenty of points, leading to a string of shootouts the offense could usually win.
But Fitzgerald's keys to the defeat routinely were the responsibility of the offense, a strange situation for this team to be in. The offense was one of the Big Ten's finest early on this season, and the eye-popping numbers backed that up. Again, the unti came up with big plays in the 40-30 loss to Ohio State.
There's little doubt that if the Wildcats are going to recover from these back-to-back losses, it's going to be because of a play-making offense. Perhaps it's a main reason Fitzgerald targeted his criticism at generic offensively units rather than specific players, including Colter, who threw an interception in one of just five pass attempts Saturday.
"I think he's just trying to make plays. I can't fault Kain's effort," Fitzgerald said. "This young man's won a lot of football games for us, plays with his heart on his sleeve and he's trying to make things happen. We can analyze and we can overanalyze the decision-making, the choices he's made. We could do that for everybody. But that's just part of the deal with being a quarterback, you make a bad choice, you throw a pick, he missed some guys that were open, that's part of the deal. And he'll learn from it and be better."
It's something Fitzgerald needs his entire offense to do ahead of this week's game against Minnesota: be better.