When: Saturday, Sept. 3; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Evanston, Ill., Ryan Field (47,130)
All-Time Series: Northwestern leads 1-0
Last Meeting: Northwestern won 38-17 (Sept. 14, 2013)
Line: Northwestern -5
All signs with Northwestern — both internally with how the program talks about itself and its expectations for the season and externally from the media — would not suggest this is a team coming off a record-breaking 10-win season.
The Wildcats have those lofty expectations again even if no one seems to believe they can do it after displaying an abysmal offense last season with an elite defense no one seems certain they will duplicate.
Northwestern can make a statement in this game against a good Western Michigan offense that the 10-win team was not as much of a fluke as the expectations seem to expect. The Wildcats can start a big season with a strong victory to start the season.
1 Burning Question: Can Clayton Thorson run the offense?
Northwestern has one question surrounding it this season. The one question that probably has everyone doubting the Wildcats on the offensive end and the reason so many still are not willing to hop on the Northwestern bandwagon.
And that is sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson.
The Wildcats had by far the worst offense in the Big Ten last year. they struggled to throw the ball consistently, pick up yards and score. Their defense did all the heavy lifting and the offense only had to not make mistakes.
And offensive coordinator Mick McCall and Northwestern ran their offense that way too. Thorson had little freedom to do much more than pass it to the perimeter and make simple reads. The team relied heavily on the run game and especially Justin Jackson.
Pat Fitzgerald said he wants to lighten the load on Jackson significantly. They will try to use Warren Long more. But the best way to get the offense at least to mediocrity is for Thorson to take a leap and be able to successfully have control of the offense.
A full offseason as the starter, and a season under his belt, should help Thorson take that next step. How much freedom he has and ability to execute the offense at a higher level will be key for Northwestern.
2 Key Stats
–18.6: That is the number of points per game teams scored against Northwestern. The Wildcats were a staunch defensive team. Take out their three losses — a combined 123-16 blowout to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee — and the Cats gave up a paltry 11.9 points per game. Scoring on Northwestern is hard and should be again this year.
—5: That is the number of touchdowns Justin Jackson scored last year. Despite rushing for 1,418 yards and carrying the ball 24.0 times per game, Jackson was not the one doing the scoring. Then again, no one on Northwestern was doing a lot of scoring. Getting that number (even surpassing it early in the season) would be a big step forward for the Wildcats in developing their offense and using Jackson more effectively.
3 Key Players
Montre Hartage, Northwestern CB: Western Michigan has one of the best pass attacks in the MAC, featuring Corey Davis
and Daniel Braverman . Matthew Harris is already one of the best cornerbacks in the conference. Hartage is the unproven player of the Northwestern “Sky Team.” He gets tested from the very start with this dynamic offensive receiving duo.
Solomon Vault, Northwestern WR: Solomon Vault converted from running back to wide receiver during the bowl week and is already getting starter’s reps for the Wildcats as they try to expand their passing attack. Vault has a ton of speed and can change the game very quickly when he gets into space — just ask Duke last year. How he adjusts to playing wide receiver will be one of the big questions for the Wildcats early on in the season.
Asantay Brown, Western Michigan LB: Western Michigan’s defense will be the big question in this matchup. The Broncos are facing a growing offense and could be in a position to assert themselves. But Western Michigan finished 88th in Defensive S&P+ last year. The Broncos were not a very good defense. Asantay Brown, the team’s leading tackler last year, returns on an experienced bunch. They will have to prove themselves quickly.
4 Bold Prognostications
—Justin Jackson scores two touchdowns: OK, maybe that one is not bold. But considering he scored only five touchdowns last year. . . Jackson will get the ball plenty and put up a ton of yards against a poor run defense. The Wildcats will not have to open up too much.
—Clayton Thorson throws for more than 200 yards: Clayton Thorson will get his opportunities too though. And he will not be afraid to let things fly for the Wildcats. And Northwestern will let him make those decisions. Thorson spreads the ball around, perhaps makes a few little mistakes, but gains confidence heading into Week Two.
—Northwestern gives up a passing touchdown or two: Northwestern gave up only five passing touchdowns last year. That is not a lot. Against these two wide receivers and with a first-time starter in Hartage, the pass defense may be a little weak at this stage of the season. It will show signs of dominance, but a mistake here or there against this duo is nothing to be too concerned about.
—Northwestern wins comfortably: The spread right now is only five points. And usually my suggestion is never bet on Northwestern ever. But there is a lot of disrespect going around about Northwestern considering they won 10 games last season and return most of their players from that team. The name on the front of the jersey still carries a lot of baggage. The Wildcats played a lot of close games last year and won them all. That remains a question. But this Western Michigan team is not the won to challenge NU. The Wildcats win comfortably and take care of business quickly.
5 Staff Predictions
Andy: Northwestern 24-13
Dave: Northwestern 21-17
Phil H.: Northwestern 27-17
Phil P.: Northwestern 24-10
Zach: Northwestern 31-17