EVANSTON, ILL.—A week after gaining 545 yards in its homecoming win, a timeout before the first play of the game beckoned as a harbinger of warning and potential events to come for Wisconsin’s offense on Saturday.
Three turnovers, untimely errors and lack of execution ultimately stalled UW in its 31-17 loss to Northwestern in only recording 323 yards of offense.
“It was definitely tough today,” running back Jonathan Taylor said. “We had a lot of good plays, a lot of big plays, and then we also had times where we shot oursleves in the foot so I felt like that was a big part of today’s game was just self-execution.”
Redshirt senior left guard Michael Deiter broke down several factors when asked why things have not come together.
“It’s still just a guy here and a guy there and then getting the best stuff called versus certain defenses,” Deiter said. “I mean there’s a lot that goes into it. From the offensive side of it, I think it’s just a guy here, a guy there being off.
“Then today it was just too much shooting ourselves in the foot. Not enough clean football at all. Too many turnovers, too much sloppy stuff, but then there was also good. Just got to be more consistent, and that takes 11 guys every single play. We just need to make sure we understand the importance of each play we get.”
And in this type of game, in an environment like Ryan Field which has caused Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) problems over the past two decades, its offense needed to take advantage of each snap with a new quarterback under center.
UW received the ball on its own 35-yard line, a gift of solid field position for sophomore Jack Coan to lead his first series as quarterback after Northwestern punter Jake Collins hit the opening kickoff out of bounds.
After reports swirled late this week, Coan started in place of the injured quarterback Alex Hornibrook (concussion).
Time wore off the play clock when Wisconsin burned the first of its three timeouts of the first half, all before a second came off the game clock.
“That’s on me,” head coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to start the game that way. Where it was at, and what was happening with the group, we weren’t getting out of the huddle fast enough, and didn't want to start with a penalty.”
Wisconsin did capitalize early on Northwestern’s first turnover, a Clayton Thorson pass that was deflected by inside linebacker Ryan Connelly and into the diving hands of safety Evan Bondoc. Five plays later, senior fullback Alec Ingold took it in from four yards out to help put Wisconsin up 7-0 in the first quarter.
For that matter, the offense scored 14 points off of three Wildcat turnovers on the day. UW, however, would commit three turnovers of their own that turned into 17 Northwestern points.
All three takeaways committed by Wisconsin were inside its own territory, with two being at or inside the 15-yard line. All three led to points on the board—two touchdowns and a field goal.
After Wisconsin’s defense valiantly halted NU’s offense on a goal line stand, its offense trudged along deep in its territory to its 15-yard line. On a 2nd-and-6, a fumbled exchange between Coan and Jonathan Taylor led to a recovery by Trae Williams at the UW 15.
Working with a short field, that led to Northwestern’s second touchdown of the game.
Coan mentioned postgame that the “mesh” between he and Taylor—the process of handing off the ball—“just wasn’t very good,” but knows the two has to get that fixed.
“Jack took first-team all week. We were comfortable” Taylor said about the exchange after Coan’s availability. “It was just about being on the same page and making sure that was crisp and clean all the time.”
In the third quarter and Wisconsin now down 21-10, Taylor fumbled on the second play of the drive. The ball was recovered by Montre Hartage at the UW 42, and the Wildcats would again take advantage with a Chad Kuhbander 26-yard field goal to extend the lead to a two-touchdown deficit.
Two Wisconsin offensive possessions later, Coan fumbled twice on a 1st-and-10 from the UW eight-yard line. After recovering from the initial drop, he scrambled to the Wisconsin 13-yard line, but coughed up the ball again. Linebacker Nate Hall recovered, and Northwestern capitalized four plays later with an Isaiah Bowser two-yard touchdown run to cap the Wildcats’ scoring for the afternoon.
Placing the offense’s struggles this weekend entirely on Coan, who saw his first game time action of the season on Saturday, would be foolhardy. Deiter pointed to the offense as a whole in supporting him.
“I think it was good just to make your first start on the road, anything like that. There’s a lot of stuff that could go into it, and I think he battled,” Deiter said of Coan. “He played well. He was confident. I didn’t think there was anything crazy on his end that he was struggling with. I think he played really well. We just need to help him, surrounding him.”
He finished the game completing 20-of-31 passes for 158 yards and a late touchdown pass to Kendric Pryor in the fourth quarter. When asked if he felt like he had to scale back the offense a bit and not utilize the full complement of Wisconsin’s offense with a first-time starter, Chryst explained his process of thought.
“I think there’s probably a balance there that felt like we got to make sure we got a good plan against this defense, and early weren’t sure what the status would be, but didn’t feel like that was part of—Jack, he worked with the ones all week—so didn’t have anything in there that you felt like wasn’t appropriate for the game plan and fit in,” Chryst said.
“I think early, you wanted to be smart and make sure that just in calling it that you got a little bit of a rhythm but not significantly where you say, ‘Boy we got to change it,’ or didn’t feel like we had to dumb it down or anything like that. I think it’s helped that he’s got a ton of work throughout the year. This is certainly his first game action this year. I think you adjust it a little bit for each player but not like we had to scale it.”
Deiter did not believe the offensive strategy really did not change with Coan at quarterback.
“I think from what I saw, it was all pretty much the same as it would be any other week,” Deiter said. “We trust Jack. He’s a smart guy, and we were confident with him.”
Chryst noted what hurt the offense more was not being efficient on third down and getting a rhythm going for the unit, which affected the run game. Third downs was a challenge once again for Wisconsin, going 4-of-12 in converting those opportunities.
Wisconsin came into the game fourth in the nation in yards rushing per contest (282.1). Against the Wildcats, UW registered just 165 yards on the ground. Taylor, who went over the century mark in all seven games prior, was held to only 46 yards on 11 carries.
Make no mistake, football is team game, as mistakes and penalties by both the special teams and defensive units contributed to Wisconsin’s defeat as well.
Perhaps because of such hype surrounding the offense entering the 2018 season with a returning Heisman-caliber back, experienced offensive line with All-Americans and senior leadership, the inconsistencies shine brighter in appearance.
UW rebounded against its poor performance against Michigan two weeks ago with a drubbing of Illinois. After a rough road loss to a key divisional opponent on Saturday, its offense will have to lick its wounds once again heading into next week’s contest against Rutgers.
When asked how frustrating is it with the offense in not having been able to click all year, Ingold noted “it’s tough.”
“It’s tough when you know that you have the potential and you just need to keep playing with that next play just hoping that that’s the play that’s going to spark everything up,” Ingold said when asked how frustrating . “So we’re always looking for that spark, and we just need to go into next week just amped up, ready to go and ready to make it happen.”