Yesterday Northwestern beat College Football’s second best Miami by the score of 16-6. On the face of it the game seemed mostly useful as a cure for insomnia, but I think (or at least hope) that NU learned some lessons.
The first major lesson NU needs to take away from this contest is that right now their best running back is actually quarterback Mike Kafka. Jacob Schmidt’s eight yard run in the game's last moments was NU’s longest carry by a running back, but Mike Kafka turned in a couple 10-plus yard runs. I don’t actually put all of the failings of the running game on Schmidt and his fellow back Arby Fields because I think NU’s offensive line has been underwhelming all season. However, it seems that NU runs better with Kafka. Perhaps that’s because Kafka is quicker than Schmidt or has better vision than Fields. Maybe it’s because the QB runs are easier to block. I don’t really know. What I do know is that if NU wants to beat Michigan State it would be a good idea to run Kafka at least 15-20 times.
Another lesson from the win over Miami seems to be that NU’s defense needs to produce turnovers to help NU win. For the second week in a row NU used a series of opponent turnovers to achieve victory. Now, some would point to Purdue and Miami being really bad and say NU can’t count on this strategy to be successful in the Big Ten, but I actually think the turnovers are a signal of NU’s defense improving. Very few of the TO’s from the last two weeks have been due to terrible mistakes by the offense. NU has actually taken the ball away. Also, even some of the Big Ten’s best teams (like Iowa) have been turnover prone, so if NU’s defense can consistently cause TO’s the Wildcats can be in position to win a lot of games down the stretch.
On another note, I must say I was encouraged to see NU’s defense actually put pressure on the quarterback. At times it did seem NU took forever to reach the pocket, but overall getting seven sacks for itself. David Arnold is without a doubt a difference maker. He seems to an overall better player than Ben Johnson at this point when you factor in both rushing the QB and tackling in the run game.
Lastly, I still think NU needs massive work in the return game. Especially punt return. NU’s returners seem almost defenseless as if nobody is blocking for them. When you consider how a game can change on special teams, it is very important NU find blockers from their return people because Smith, Brewer and Matthews are fast enough to make big plays.