Northwestern’s offense, at least, cannot be any worse than it was last year.
The Wildcats had one of the worst offenses in the league last year, by just about any measure. They were last in the conference in points per game (19.5), last in yards per game (327.1), last in pass offense (138.5) and No. 111 in offensive S&P+, worst in the Big Ten. Northwestern won games by the skin of its teeth, relying heavily on its defense and making big offensive plays when it had to.
The Wildcats certainly do not want a repeat of that. The bounces will not go their way for a second straight 10-win season — at least common sense would dictate that being the case.
There were plenty of reasons for Northwestern’s offensive struggles. It all starts with freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats kept a pretty tight leash on their young quarterback. The play calls were simple and the team defaulted to controlling the clock on the ground and being one-dimensional. The defense afforded them that luxury.
That may not be the case this year. And it should not have to be.
Thorson has a year of play — and winning — under his belt. The expectation is he has improved significantly and will be able to do more offensively for the Wildcats.
Of course, his ability to throw the ball and run the offense will be limited by what his receivers can do. And the receivers were arguably as much at fault for Northwestern’s anemic offensive attack last season. The Wildcats had an inordinate amount of drops and the team struggled to get a consistent passing attack because of it.
Gone now are Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, the two most reliable receivers from last year’s team. Veterans Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson also have graduated.
Thorson may have gotten better, but the players he is targeting and throwing to will be as unproven as ever. Coming off a disastrous passing season at that.
As Northwestern prepares to play Western Michigan in its season opener, no question about the team may be as large or as looming as who will step up among the wide receivers.
The Week One depth chart released Monday has captain and leading returning receiver Austin Carr (16 receptions, 302 yards — and that is not a typo), Solomon Vault (a converted running back) and Flynn Nagel (a sophomore who showed promise early last year before injuries knocked him out of the lineup) as the starting wide receivers.
Carr is more of a possession receiver while Vault and Nagel feature much more speed to get down the field. But there is not a ton of experience. Carr is a senior but did not play any meaningful minutes until last season.
The backups are equally inexperienced, including converted wide receiver from cornerback Marcus McShepherd and little-used upperclassmen Andrew Scanlan.
Thorson’s options are not exactly proven.
But if they click, the Wildcats have more athleticism at wide receiver and the some more big-play potential. Vault is an excellent sprinter and has great speed. He was a solid running back option and a dynamic special teams threat for Northwestern last year. McShepherd may not have receiving experience, but he certainly has athletic talent if he started off as a cornerback.
Walker says Marcus McShepard and Solomon Vault are "dynamic players" and other teams "can't stack the box" when they're in the game.
— Inside NU (@insidenu) August 29, 2016
Thorson himself showed plenty of athleticism in rushing touchdowns against Stanford and Nebraska. Those were momentum-changing plays in those two big victories for the Wildcats.
Northwestern will not have an easy game in its opener against Western Michigan. The Broncos feature a strong offense themselves although their defense was not particularly strong last year. The Wildcats are not seeing the Cardinal to start the year like last season, but they will have to get their work in and have to fight for the victory.
Northwestern has a ton of questions to answer ahead of Big Ten season in its three nonconference games. The Wildcats conference season starts off fast and furious. The offense and defense will have to be sharp starting with that opener against Nebraska.
The Wildcats will have to be more effective passing the football to get more out of Justin Jackson and their potent rushing attack. Thorson can only truly improve if the receivers are getting separation and catching the ball. That was something they struggled to do throughout last season.
Saturday represents the first test for the Wildcats as they try to get their offense to climb out of the basement it was in last season.