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Nevada Wolfpack vs. Northwestern Wildcats: Previews, Predictions and Prognostications

The first game of the season is here. The Northwestern Wildcats prepare to make good on their bowl momentum last year as they open the season against the Nevada Wolfpack.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

When: Sat. Sept. 2, 2017; 3:30 p.m. ET/2:30 p.m. CT
Where: Evanston, Ill.; Ryan Field (47,130)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Series tied 1-1
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 36-31 (Sept. 8, 2007)
Line: Northwestern (-24)

Northwestern fans are a normally pessimistic bunch. This is a school that has not experienced a lot of success and what little success the team has seems fleeting.

Really, it is a defense mechanism. There have been too many heartbreaks and too many disappointments — losses snatched from the jaws of victory and the like — to get too excited about anything. Other than the start of the season.

The last time Northwestern won a bowl game, everyone began to believe. Everyone circled the Week Five date with Ohio State for ESPN College GameDay. Everyone got upset when the Wildcats were not ranked in the preseason top 25. It felt like Northwestern was arriving following a Gator Bowl victory and returning an extremely talented roster.

That Ohio State game, a close 10-point defeat (the 10-point deficit was created on a scoop and score just before the end of the game), felt like Northwestern’s statement of belonging. Of course, the team proceeded to drop the next five games, finishing the year 5-7. The Wildcats missed a bowl game the following year too.

Northwestern did not arrive. The Wildcats did what they sort of always do.

And that was the general feeling after they got off to a disappointing 1-2 start in non-conference play. That included a loss at home to Western Michigan, Clayton Thorson fumbling the go-ahead touchdown out the back of the end zone. And then there was the embarrassing loss to Illinois State.

Northwestern recovered and was on the outside periphery of the Big Ten West title picture. The team finished at 6-6 and got to the Pinstripe Bowl. The upset victory over Pitt gave Northwestern’s its third all-time bowl win and a ton of optimism for the offseason.

After all, quarterback Clayton Thorson, running back and Big Ten leading rusher Justin Jackson and safety Godwin Igwebuike all return. There is plenty of talent throughout. And the schedule and conference seem to break Northwestern’s way. The Wildcats see an open door to compete for a division title.

But this is Northwestern. And every little bit of success makes every fan uneasy. When is that other shoe going to drop?

It always starts with that first game. Nobody is ever sure what Northwestern team is going to show up. Even when the Wildcats are heavy favorites.

The only thing to do is see what this season has in store. And what this Saturday has in store.

1 Burning Question: Can Clayton Thorson lead the offense?

Much of the optimism around Northwestern centers around quarterback Clayton Thorson. He graduated from wide-eyed freshman managing the game to difference maker last year in passing for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns. The team could put the ball in his hands and let him sling it.

Of course, it helped to have Austin Carr. He was the primary receiver and the bail out option for Thorson on seemingly every turn. So the question now becomes who does Thorson turn to?

Maybe the bigger question is can Thorson make one of those players his new star receiver. Thorson has the arm strength and ability to make all the throws. The junior quarterback attended the Peyton Manning Passing Academy. There is another level he can go. And Justin Jackson’s production is going to be a constant.

So the wild card is Thorson and his ability to elevate the play of a new batch of wide receivers. Nevada is the kind of team that will give him the opportunity to do so. This is the kind of game where the team’s stars should simply dominate.

2 Key Stats

347: Nevada is going to be hurting for some consistent production this year in the run game. The Wolfpack lost leading rusher James Butler from last year, He eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark as Nevada had a pretty solid rushing attack. The leading runner returning? That is Jaxson Kincaide and all of his 347 yards. In fairness, Northwestern’s backup running back, John Moten IV, also rushed for only 340 yards. But considering the Wildcats are reworking their front seven and the Wolfpack’s poor passing attack last year, this is not a good sign for offensive success this week.

105: Last year Austin Carr was a dominant force for the Wildcats, making 90 catches for 1,247 yards. Solomon Vault, similarly, was a huge threat in the run and the pass. In all they caught 105 of Northwestern’s 282 receptions and 1,411 of 3,186 yards and 14 of 22 touchdowns. And all of that is gone for this year. Carr graduated and Vault is out with an injury for the year. The question for the Wildcats is how they replace this production. It will be a big storyline for the team in these early games if NU is going to compete for a division title.

3 Key Players

Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern S: The Wildcats are still figuring out who replaces Anthony Walker at linebacker, but they should feel good about who their leader is. Godwin Igwebuike is a hard-hitting safety who has a knack for finding the ball on defense. He creates a lot of takeaways. And as the lader of Northwestern’s promising secondary, he has a chance to lead this team back to defensive prominence.

David Cornwell, Nevada QB: Nevada has not named an official starter, listing both David Cornwell and Ty Gangi as the starting quarterback. There is no intention to name a starter before the opener Saturday. Gangi was the backup last year. Cornwell, a junior like Gangi, transferred from Alabama. So the kid is clearly talented. But he is a bit of an unknown and could be a wild card for Saturday’s game.

Gunnar Vogel, Northwestern OT: Northwestern has some big questions to answer on the offensive line. The team returned a lot of its starters, but NU was clearly unhappy with how things went. There is a lot of inexperience that could push for playing time. One of them will be starter Gunnar Vogel. The redshirt freshman practiced last year as a defensive tackle during his redshirt year and converted back to the offensive line. This is a big spot for him to enter.

Prediction: Northwestern 35, Nevada 17

 

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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