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Northwestern Wildcats Football Preview: Lessons from the 2016 season

The Northwestern Wildcats celebrated a bowl victory in 2016. But they still have a lot of questions following a 6-6 regular season.

Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats

As Northwestern Wildcats football players mimicked the Daniel Bryan “Yes” chants and made confetti angels on the hallowed grounds of Yankee Stadium, their seasons felt like a smashing success.

The team had upset the heavily favored and nationally ranked Pittsburgh Panthers and won the program’s third ever bowl game. It felt like a success of a season.

And it was.

But the bowl victory, the good vibes from the offseason and a few surprising wins, hid a team that struggled to get itself going and still had some glaring flaws. The Wildcats, after all, went 6-6 heading into the bowl game and had to recover from a puzzling and frustrating 9-7 defeat to FBS Illinois State.

Northwestern has been here before, feeling hopeful and optimistic after a 10-win season or after a bowl win. Yet, the Wildcats have seen that hope quickly collapse.

As we look back at 2016 and prepare for 2017, there are plenty of lessons to learn to try to take Northwestern back from iffy bowl team to Big Ten West contender.

The defense is more than Anthony Walker

Northwestern built its 2015 season largely on the back of its defense. The team came up with defensive performance after defensive performance that just astounded. The Wildcats had never had a defense quite this dominant — even with Pat Fitzgerald and middle linebacker in the mid-1990s.

Anthony Walker was a huge part of that. His dominant play from middle linebacker had NFL scouts whispering his name in the first round.

He ended up going in the fifth round in this year’s NFL Draft as injuries slowed him down a bit in his redshirt junior year.

The Wildcats’ defense took a step back, but not a huge one. It was still a reliable group, giving up 22.2 points per game and 404.4 yards per game. The Wildcats needed the offense to pick up some slack as the group was not as dominant in 2015, but the defense was more than serviceable.

The team proved last year it was more than Walker and his 105 tackles.

Godwin Igwebuike, Montre Hartage and Kyle Queiro helped lead a solid secondary stretched thin by injury. Plenty of players gained experience last year and the Wildcats’ solid recruiting in the secondary are likely to push the team further against the pass.

Even with Ifeadi Odenigbo graduating (and off to the NFL), the team has a solid group of defensive tackles led by Joe Gaziano and C.J. Robbins who can eat up space on the line and give the young group of linebackers the chance to roam around.

Northwestern’s defense may not ever be as dominant as it was in 2005 for a while. But the team has always exuded discipline with its defense. This group has plenty to believe it can still be a bedrock for the Wildcats.

Clayton Thorson can carry the team… or share it with Justin Jackson

The big question entering the 2016 season was whether Clayton Thorson could carry his load for the Wildcats offense. Largely his freshman year, Mick McCall and Northwestern kept him largely handcuffed. They pushed him to be a game manager and largely took the ball out of his hands except for obvious passing downs.

Nobody was quite sure how much Thorson could develop. And the way the Wildcats played against both Western Michigan, where Thorson fumbled at the goal line to lose the game, and Illinois State did not leave much hope for the offense.

Then things changed and Thorson turned his season around. He put together a stellar 3,182 passing yard season with 22 touchdowns against nine interceptions. The Wildcats seemed like they could finally trust him. Given a deficit, Thorson had the ability to lead the team back.

Take the Michigan State game. Northwestern trailed 14-0. It was the kind of game where the team may have packed it in to protect Thorson from confidence-crushing mistakes in 2015. Instead, they let Thorson unleash and he threw for 281 yards and three touchdowns in a 54-40 win.

The offense seemed unleashed from that point forward. The Wildcats were a force offensively and Thorson played with supreme confidence.

With Justin Jackson back in the backfield with him next year, it looks like Northwestern is set offensively with Thorson leading the way at quarterback in his third year as the starter.

Northwestern’s season goes as its close games go

Northwestern has never been a team that can consistently blow out opponents. To the fans’ chagrin, every game seems to be close and come right down to the wire. This is just the reality of Northwestern football.

And so the difference between a 10-win season and a Big Ten title shot and a season where they struggle to make a bowl game always seems very very narrow.

It is probably redundant to say, win your close games and your season will be successful. But for the Wildcats that is very true.

In 2016, the Wildcats went 2-3 in games decided by seven or fewer points. They actually played a lot of games that were decided by two scores, an oddity for the Wildcats. In 2015, NU went 5-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer. This in a year the team won 10 games.

The Wildcats have a strong running back in Justin Jackson to pace themselves through most games. But Thorson will have to be relied on to win games once again this year.

And whether Northwestern succeeds will be on whether they can win when the chips are down — or win running away.

Never forget your bedrocks

The one name that has not been mentioned enough in this post is Justin Jackson. And it is important for Northwestern to remember what makes it a potentially special team.

Justin Jackson is the leading rusher in the Big Ten and shows no sign of slowing down.

Yes, the Wildcats are constantly looking for backup running backs to ease Jackson’s load — 298 rushing attempts in 13 games — but Jackson is the team’s workhorse and its bread and butter.

Northwestern will still give Jackson plenty of carries. And he will have to carry a heavy load once again. The Wildcats are going to have to hope their offensive line holds up — it struggled at time with pass rushes but gave Jackson plenty of running room.

But the Wildcats cannot become enamored with Thorson. Jackson is still the key to their success. He will set up Thorson’s run and give the growing receivers group the freedom to get open.

Justin Jackson will still be Northwestern’s star.

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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