Things didn't start well for the Wildcats on Saturday night. They were down 10-0 before they ran their second offensive play, and trailed 17-0 at the end of the first quarter.
Though they played much better after that horrible start and moved the ball at will through the air, they still dropped a heart-breaker to Syracuse 37-34.
Mike Kafka had a brilliant day throwing the ball, but he also committed three turnovers, something they couldn't afford given their other issues.
The Wildcats had a number of injuries, but two of them played major roles: starting cornerback Sherrick McManis and starting running back Stephen Simmons. Their play on the field clearly suffered because of it.
Their defense did not play particularly well overall, but their biggest issue by a wide margin was covering Syracuse receiver Mike Williams. The senior wide out shredded the Cats' defense all day, totaling 11 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns.
He was open pretty much all game, which is why he accounted for 60 percent of their receiving yards.
Though Williams is a talented player, I have a very hard time seeing him have that kind of performance if McManis had been healthy. Sherrick is arguably NU's best defensive player and a top-notch cover corner.
With him out of the lineup, Williams had a huge mismatch that the Cats simply couldn't handle.
The running game for Northwestern was also a non-factor. The Cats accumulated only 52 yards on 28 carries, an average of 1.9 yards. Jacob Schmidt seems miscast as a feature back, considering that he only had 30 yards on 10 carries and failed to get more than six yards on any carry. I'm not suggesting that the Cats would have had a dominant game on the ground with Simmons, but he is a more versatile back with more speed and agility.
Perhaps if he were healthy, they would have had a little more balance and been able to milk some clock late in the game when they had the lead. Their kick returns also suffered without Simmons, as Brewer averaged only 18.5 yards per return.
NU simply wasn't able to overcome these injuries and pull out a victory. They gave up far too many yards on the outside and struggled to consistently make tackles once Syracuse reached the second level. Even with a healthy roster, they probably wouldn't have had a dominant victory.
Northwestern simply has to get healthy for the game next week, otherwise their margin for error is very slim.
Minnesota also has a dominant receiver in Eric Decker, and a quarterback that can do some damage if he has open receivers. They simply can't afford to let Decker have a huge day; otherwise, they could face a similar result.