It is officially game week. Northwestern has a depth chart (they do not hide it like some other teams in the Big Ten, although finding it on Northwestern’s Web site is more difficult than it usually is) and they will have an opponent to play Saturday at Ryan Field.
It is an exciting time for the Wildcats. They have the belief they can win the Big Ten West. Pat Fitzgerald is pretty openly talking about it, calling it the last hurdle his program has to climb.
For a team like Northwestern, there are always a few years where things seem to fall into place for them. That is the feeling about this season. The Wildcats return a lot of experience at key skill positions. And, yes, there is no Michigan or Ohio State on the schedule. Wisconsin is recovering to some extent. The pathway seems clear.
That is always the thing about Northwestern, right? No one is ever sure if this is the year the program turns that corner. The last time the team won a bowl game and came into the offseason with all this momentum, the team fell flat and missed a bowl game. It took years to recover.
Northwestern is looking to reverse that and make something of its 2017 season. Something more than a simple bowl trip. LIke always with Northwestern things could just as easily go really bad as they could go really well.
Still, Northwestern has quietly become a darkhorse to win the Big Ten West. In fact, it feels like most predictions have them finishing second. That puts the emphasis on the Sept. 30 game against Wisconsin. That Big Ten opener could very well put Northwestern in the driver’s seat or end those Big Ten West hopes pretty early (especially with Penn State coming the following week).
So what is it about Northwestern that has everyone excited? There is a ton as the season gets set to begin.
1. Justin Jackson keeps running
It may come as a surprise to some observers, but the leading rusher in the Big Ten last year came from the Northwestern Wildcats. Justin Jackson has carried a heavy load for this offense the last three years and he seems not to care. He gets stronger as the game goes on.
Jackson rushed for 1,524 yards last year on 298 carries. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry. And he was incredibly durable.
Even for a running back of his relatively short 5-foot-11 stature, Jackson is just difficult to bring down. He does not break away from defenses often — unless they are Pitt, which he did plenty of times in rushing for more than 300 yards in a MVP performance. But Jackson is the workhorse. He is the guy Northwestern will run everything through.
2. Clayton Thorson can sling it too
Northwestern’s offense was still a bit basic last year. But Clayton Thorson took some major steps in his sophomore year. He was no longer simply the game manager. Thorson had to go out and take control of a few games.
The team only expects him to continue growing. After his 3,182 passing yards year last season, Thorson showed plenty of room to grow. He attended the Peyton Manning Passing Academy this summer. And he now gives Northwestern one of the best quarterback-running back combos. It still feels like Thorson is scratching the surface.
The only issue is who he passes to. So much of his passes went to surprising breakout receiver Austin Carr last year. It became Thorson’s security blanket. Someone with those wide receivers will have to step up. But Thorson should be ready to help someone take that step.
3. Recruiting comes to roost
For several years, Northwestern has touted it is bringing in its best recruiting class ever. This is year after year. Pat Fitzgerald has done a lot of work to get Northwestern’s talent level up. It shows itself in how the Wildcats are able to replace graduating seniors.
That will come into play this year where NU’s talent depth will get tested more than ever. Especially on defense.
The team will rely on new starters Paddy Fisher and Brett Walsh at linebacker to help fill the void left by Anthony Walker (more on that in a bit). The team also will have new defensive lineman in Jordan Thompson and Fred Wyatt. This is a front seven short on experience, but full of talent. Northwestern is and should be cautiously optimistic of what this group can do.
4. Anthony Walker’s void
Anthony Walker became the first player to leave Northwestern early for the NFL Draft since 1996. And it was well deserved. Walker was a monster at middle linebacker, able to get into the backfield and force turnovers when his team needed him. He did the position proud.
Filling that void is of course very difficult. And Northwestern may spend a good chunk of the year seeking not only to fill the void at middle linebacker but also the leadership void.
Godwin Igwebuike should help with the latter. He plays like a linebacker at safet, ball hawking and forcing turnovers. He is good at getting downhill to make tackles. But the task of filling that middle linebacker role will go to newcomer Paddy Fisher. The freshman shined last year in practice during a redshirt year, but this is the big time for him and his backup, the more experienced Nathan Fox.
5. The Sky Team
Northwestern’s undoubted strength on defense is in the secondary. Last year’s group was similarly experienced, but injuries slowed them down. Especially to Keith Watkins II and senior Matthew Harris. That led to the passing defense being a bit porous last year, but it gave a lot of talented cornerbacks a ton of experience.
Watkins is back from his injury this year and will start Saturday against Nevada. Godwin Igwebuike, Kyle Queiro and Montrage Hartage all had stellar seasons last year. That is quite a fearsome quartet to pass against. It will be Northwestern’s undoubted strength.
The Wildcats have had a bend-don’t-break defense the last few years. They certainly make it tough for teams to move the ball. Northwestern will have to lean on them heavily, particularly early in the season. Because . . .
6. Where does the pass rush come from?
The big question for Northwestern this year where be about the pass rush. Last year, the Wildcats had Anthony Walker, Nathan Hall and Ifeadi Odenigbo (the conference’s leading sacker) and they were still among the worst in generating pressure and sacks in the conference. Now all three of those players are gone, replaced in the front seven by a lot of inexperience.
Tyler Lancaster and Joe Gaziano provide some hope of generating some pressure. Lancaster has done a good job eating blocks and is known as one of the strongest players on the team. And Gaziano established himself with his big hit against Michigan State. But it is all unproven.
And the linebackers are just as inexperienced. The secondary will hold itself up, but it will need some pressure to make the team’s Big Ten dreams a reality.
7. Offensive line shifting
Just like the defensive line, the offensive line has some big questions too. And Northwestern is not starting from a good spot. The Wildcats return a lot of their starters from last year, but that may not be a good thing. Northwestern gave up plenty of sacks last year. Some of that was Clayton Thorson holding onto the ball too long.
So the Wildcats are trying to find the right combination along the offensive line. They will Jared Thomas, Blake Hance, Brad North, Tommy Doles and Gunnar Vogel will get the first call. Hance, North and Doles were stalwarts along the line last year. And North, playing at center, was a solid player last year.
But the team is going to be experimenting still. But there is still not a lot of depth there. And the play of the offensive line could very well determine just how far Northwestern can go.
8. Bowl momentum
Northwestern is not too familiar with winning bowl games. The program has just three bowl wins ever. But two have come in the last three bowl appearances. Last year’s Pinstripe Bowl win seemed to validate the team and make it feel better than a 7-6 season.
Northwestern wanted to build that momentum into the offseason. That is what the team wanted to do after its 2013 Gator Bowl victory over Mississippi State. Of course, the team cratered after a 4-0 start in 2013 and missed a bowl game by one game. Injuries, internal discord over the unionization effort and absolutely rotten luck cost the team then.
The question facing Northwestern this year is whether Pat Fitzgerald learned any lessons from his preparation. All signs point to the Wildcats having learned that lesson and at minimum getting to a bowl again. But, of course, Northwestern wants more.
9. The Superback
As noted, Northwestern’s wide receivers are a huge question mark for the team. The Wildcats have a quarterback who can make all the throws, but do not have the receivers with experience and reliability. Not like Austin Carr did.
That leaves Northwestern looking to an unlikely place to lead the receiving corps. Their version of the tight end — the super back.
And Garrett Dickerson can play the role. He is a big 6-foot-3, 248 pounds with good hands and the ability to catch the ball underneath and turn up field. Without a burner on the edge, or a reliable one quite yet, Northwestern’s patient offense will look to use Dickerson a lot to get up the field. Also watch out for wide receiver Ben Skowronek to help loosen the defense underneath.
10. Looking for a Vault
The wide receiver corps. for the Wildcats has taken quite a few hits this offseason. In addition to losing Austin Carr, the Wildcats will be without speedster Solomon Vault. So there is the question of who will stretch the field for Northwestern. If Dickerson and Skowronek can help the team underneath, who is making the linebackers thing about what is going on behind them?
That will fall to someone else. As will the punt return duties, where Vault was a bit of a game changer when he did get his hands on the ball. Flynn Nagel is going to get the first crack at filling both of those roles.
Nagel is very capable. He has good speed and is smart with the ball. Like a lot of the undersized receivers Northwestern has, the question is whether he can get separation. But the Wildcats have used Nagel plenty in the run game even and there is no reason to think Nagel will not be a threat for the Wildcats this season.