The Big Ten football season got its official start Monday as the coaches took their turn at the podium to address the assembled media before their seasons begin in the next few weeks. Pat Fitzgerald had his turn Tuesday as he spoke about a wide range of issues including new targeting rules, the Wildcats’ future with their new facilities and the momentum from winning a bowl game.
It is an exciting time for Northwestern. The 2017 season brings with it a lot of promise — even with some holes to fill.
The Wildcats will get started with training camp in a few weeks as they deal with the expectations of winning a bowl game and being one of the dark horse favorites to win a wide open Big Ten West. All with veteran players in key positions.
These are the seasons where Pat Fitzgerald and his stable staff have struggled to get Northwestern over the top. This is the part of the year where Northwestern fans become suspicious with all the accolades coming the team’s way. Fans do not know how to deal with these expectations.
Fans have the luxury of worrying about this stuff. Pat Fitzgerald and the team have the burden of doing something about it.
Everyone is expecting big things from this team. But Fitzgerald, understated as always, is not buying into the hype. He is worried about going 1-0 every week and putting his team in the best position to win. He has all the tools it seems and the confidence Northwestern can get there.
Still, questions remain.
Here are five Northwestern faces as Big Ten Media Days come to a close.
How do the Wildcats handle success?
One of the more intriguing questions Pat Fitzgerald fielded during his media session came from Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. Greenstein asked Fitzgerald whether he would have preferred having to lose a bowl game and find that hunger in the offseason.
That question got a bit of a chuckle. Of course, Fitzgerald would rather win the bowl game. And for a Northwestern program with only three bowl wins (including last year’s Pinstripe Bowl victory), every bowl win matters. They still feel very special to the team.
More than anything, that bowl victory was a culmination of an incredibly strong nine-game finish to the season where Northwestern saved its season. It was that kind of momentum that leaves the Wildcats in the position of having heavy expectations this year.
Still, there is something to this. The team needs a drive and a hunger for the next year.
The last time Northwestern won a bowl game, the team had Big Ten title expectations. The Wildcats hosted GameDay that year and the completely collapsed, missing a bowl game entirely. Northwestern is always a bit wary of success.
But Fitzgerald has surely learned from that experience. And he expressed his disappointment with how the team started last year. That 1-3 start had the Wildcats in some panic mode as they rallied to get to 6-6 and a bowl game. Northwestern has plenty to feed off to try and get to a better place.
With Wisconsin and Penn State on the schedule to start Big Ten season after a manageable non-conference slate, Northwestern will be dealing with expectations. How they respond will define their season.
Who replaces Anthony Walker?
This question got posed to Fitzgerald directly during his press conference by Inside NU. And it is a question that does have a somewhat clearer answer. But, of course, it will be impossible to replace everything Anthony Walker did for the Wildcats.
Nathan Fox is going to get the first call and he has produced and done some good things on the field already. Fox posted only 12 tackles, but he is fast and has good range. It is just tough to compare anyone to Walker.
More than anything else, the Wildcats have to find a way to replace Walker’s leadership. It is going to be a team effort to replace Walker on the field.
Fox will have to step up. So too will Nate Hall (73 tackles and 6.0 tackles for a loss last year) and Brett Walsh (37 tackles, 1.0 sack last year).
But Northwestern will rely on a lot of new players too. Fitzgerald noted converted running back Warren Long and freshman Paddy Fisher as players who will have to step up too. These are two players who have never stepped foot on the field at linebacker. And Northwestern is indeed relying on them.
The front seven as a whole will be an issue for Northwestern. Anthony Walker left a big void.
Can the offense carry the team?
The team that took the field to start the year and the team that finished the year for Northwestern felt like total opposites.
Somehow the same Wildcats team that scored just seven points at home against Illinois State was the same team that ran all over Pitt and also put up 50-plus points against Michigan State. Northwestern got itself going offensively with Clayton Thorson putting up some stellar offensive passing numbers and Justin Jackson being Justin Jackson.
The Wildcats ran all over the Panthers defense in the Pinstripe Bowl. But the defense did its work.
The Wildcats may have given up a fair amount of points all season, but they came away with crucial turnovers throughout the season. Northwestern was +9 on turnovers last season. The Wildcats made big play after big play at crucial times to get them wins. Walker had a lot of those big plays. So too did graduated defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo.
Northwestern, in other words, is looking for playmakers on defense.
That is going to put all the pressure on the offense to carry the team. Northwestern cannot have too many games like it did early in the season where Clayton Thorson could not complete a pass and Justin Jackson had to manage his workload.
This offense has the potential to be extremely balanced — perhaps the most balanced in Fitzgerald’s time at Northwestern. Thorson and Jackson will have to carry a very heavy load for Northwestern all year. But the team has shifted in the last two or three years from a defense-only team to a team that will rely heavily on the offense.
Northwestern may have to win a few shootouts.
Who catches the ball?
With how important the offense will be this season, the biggest question Northwestern faces will come with who catches the ball when Thorson throws it.
Austin Carr graduated last year after catching 90 of the Wildcats’ 282 completions. Northwestern will need some other receivers to step up. The top returning receiver is junior Flynn Nagel. He is viewed more as a speedster rather than a possession receiver like Carr.
Northwestern could stretch the field, but ultimately the team’s success offensively is in its quick passing attack and throws to the perimeter for extended handoffs and swing passes.
The Wildcats have to find receivers who can step up and get open in between the hash marks and become available for Thorson. A good quarterback should be able to help create openings. Thorson did that with Carr. But Carr also had an innate ability to get open or make some incredible catches. There was complete trust between Thorson and Carr by the end of the season.
Whether it is Flynn Nagel or Garrett Dickerson or Macan Wilson or someone new, Northwestern needs a go-to receiver to unlock the full power of their offense.