College football season is officially back, with North Dakota State and Charleston Southern kicking things off in FCS action on Saturday. However, the biggest of the big boys get things going over Labor Day weekend (and a few days earlier).
It means the return of insane tailgating set ups, brutal Group of 5 opponents looking for a paycheck and the first FBS football game in the history of legendary Lambeau Field. With the season about to start everyone seems excited (sorry, everyone but Purdue fans) about the season ahead and hopeful that goals are achieved.
With Week 1 finally upon us, let’s take a look at the biggest storylines to watch for Big Ten football.
Can Wisconsin Handle Its Crazy Schedule?
Few topics surrounding the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers were as talked about this offseason as much as UW’s insane schedule. It all kicks off on Saturday afternoon against the LSU Tigers at Lambeau Field. It also is clearly the most difficult non-conference game on the slate for the Badgers, and how it goes could be a sign of things to come for UW this season.
With Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all in a row to open Big Ten play, confidence is going to be key. Get crushed by LSU and what happens to a team with a lot of moving parts and young players filling up the two deep?
Shock most of the college football world and win? Does that signal a Badgers team that is vastly underrated in 2016?
A lot may depend on the play of newly minted starting quarterback Bart Houston, and the team’s confidence in competing against the best of the best is likely going to come from its confidence that its starting QB can get the job done when called upon in difficult situations.
There are a lot of questions that will be answered about the Badgers on Saturday, but perhaps the most important answer will be how this team looks against the top of the college football heap out of the gate.
Are Young Bucks Ready to Step Up?
Ohio State’s biggest question to answer this offseason has been how it replaces all those draft picks, especially the nine players who left for the NFL before their eligibility was up in Columbus.
Few believe that Urban Meyer’s team is going to fall off the face of the earth given its insane run on the recruiting trail and having one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the country still around. Yet, change abounds around J.T. Barrett and even if the hype is there for just about every player stepping on to the field on Saturday, this is still the first go-round for a lot of starters.
There is a new starter at running back who has never played a college football game (Mike Weber) and a backup who is a true freshman (Antonio Williams). OSU also has to deal with its No. 1 wide receiver, Noah Brown, coming off a broken leg last season.
Are there enough proven and capable weapons to not allow teams to just shut down Barrett and call it a day?
Even last season’s sack leader, TyQuan Lewis, has question marks surrounding him after the departure of the uber-talented and offensive line attention grabbing Joey Bosa. Can he really keep that pace up now that he is likely the focus of way more attention from opposing offensive lines?
Bowling Green may not be Michigan or Wisconsin, but they aren’t a pushover team and should this team show a lot of rust from its veterans or shaky play from the newcomers questions will start to become concerns quickly.
Is Northwestern’s Offense Back?
The long-standing hope of Northwestern fans was seeing its team finally put together a good defense to go with a scoring machine on offense. Said fans saw the defense come together and be one of the most dominant in the Big Ten last season…they also saw an offense that struggled mightily.
A lot of that had to do with a brand new starting QB in Clayton Thorson.
This season, the hope is that Thorson is ready to have the handcuffs taken off of him and for the offense to blossom while the defense continues to be very good. Should that happen it could be an interesting season in Evanston, Ill.
Reports from spring and fall camp show that Thorson has been much improved and the offense has been more dynamic. Let’s see it happen on the field against a team that is pretty darn good in Western Michigan.
Should the offense sputter against the Broncos, it might be time to worry that Northwestern is in store for a disappointing season ahead.
Can Big Ten Avoid Embarrassing Upsets?
Week 1 of the 2016 season isn’t exactly full of awesome matchups, as we struggled to find six meaningful games being played in the opening week for Big Ten teams. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some tricky games to be watching.
Kent State isn’t the pushover it has been in the past, and Penn State certainly has a lot to prove with a brand new looking offense and a brand new quarterback behind center. Western Michigan has been one of the best programs the MAC has to offer and certainly its best team on the recruiting trail. Northwestern isn’t exactly an offensive juggernaut after last season, so if the Broncos can score points it could be an interesting opener in Evanston.
Indiana has an interesting trip to Florida International in the offing, and it certainly has questions to answer on defense. Let’s just say it is a game to keep an eye on given IU’s history of playing down to its competition.
Then there is Purdue facing Eastern Kentucky, and lord knows nothing is safe when it comes to the Boilermakers football program.
Many see the Big Ten as the second-best conference in the country — going through the first week of the season without being laughed at for a major upset would be helpful to say the least.
The New Coaches in New Places
Illinois, Maryland and Rutgers all have new head coaches and all three turned to defensive-minded coaches to try to turn around the fortunes of their struggling programs. All three also need to make a statement in Week 1 of play.
Rutgers clearly has the toughest go of it in the opening week, with a trip to one of the Pac-12’s preseason favorites — the Washington Huskies. While a win may not be in the offing, being competitive and showing some defensive pride would be a welcome sight to the coaching staff and fans alike.
Maryland and Illinois take on FCS foes, so a win is likely in the offing. However, it will be important to see the tone that has been set on the heels of camp. Falling flat or struggling for victory would not be a good sign for a quick turnaround.
These changing programs have to show that it is positive change, and what better week to establish that strong base for future success than in Week 1, right?
Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win
Northwestern had three tries to win at home and lost all three so far this season. It was almost four, but the Wildcats found a way to prevail 34-31 in overtime over Nebraska on Saturday afternoon.
The win was the Wildcats third in the last four meetings and second-straight in the series between these West division foes.
It also meant Nebraska was sent to an 0-6 start to the season, something that has never happened in the history of the Huskers program.
It was an interesting way to win the game for Northwestern, as walk-on kicker Drew Luckenbaugh went from a goat to hero in less than 30 minutes of football.
The back-up kicker missed an opening kick from 42 yards out in the third quarter, but would hit an important field goal with his team down 10 points late in the fourth quarter and drill the game-winner from 37 yards out in overtime.
Northwestern also got a big day from quarterback Clayton Thorson. He completed 41 of 61 passes for 455 yards and three touchdowns. Only a pair of interceptions put a blemish on his day, as did the fact that the Wildcats only got 32 yards on the ground on 23 attempts.
Husker quarterback Adrian Martinez wasn’t as good, throwing for 251 yards but only one score and two interceptions on the day.
But, the dueling pair of interceptions were a wash, as both teams got 10 points off turnovers.
The win for Northwestern seemed to be slipping from its grasp much as it did against Michigan a few weeks ago. As time wore on, momentum swung heavily towards the visiting Huskers.
Nebraska appeared to take control of this game in the second half. A trio of unanswered touchdowns took a 14-7 Northwestern lead to a 28-14 advantage with just 13:40 to play in the game.
But, unlike previous home contests, Thorson and the Wildcats had an answer or two in them. It was a quick answer to bring the game within a score, as the Wildcats got a 61-yard touchdown pass from Clayton Thorson to Flynn Nagel.
But, Barrett Pickering made it a 10-point game with a 34-yard field goal with 5:41 to play.
Lukenbaugh answered back with a key field goal to make it 31-24 with 2:27 to go. His 31-yard field goal capped off a 15-play drive that went 62 yards in just 3:14 of time.
Nebraska was held to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive and Northwestern capitalized on the momentum swing of its own.
It would take a full 99 yards though, as the Huskers pinned Northwestern back on its own 1-yard line with the punt.
This time it took just eight plays and the Wildcats hit pay dirt on a 5-yard pass from Thorson to JJ Jefferson with just 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter.
Nebraska looked like it was going to have an easy time of it in overtime, getting to third and one thanks to Devin Ozigbo’s nine total yards. However, a false start backed them up to third and six.
Martinez would complete a 5-yard pass and instead of kicking the field goal, head coach Scott Frost rolled the dice on fourth and one. It came up snake eyes, as Martinez’s pass was intercepted by Northwestern.
The Wildcats didn’t get much going on its possession and instead, went for the game winning field goal attempt which was knocked in by Luckenbaugh.
For his late-game heroics, the former walk-on was carried off the field on the shoulders of his fellow players.
The win improves Northwestern to 3-3 on the season and given the punishing schedule it faces, winning this game was a must to even dream of getting to bowl eligibility.
Thorson dials up best against MSU once again
As much as you can never seemingly trust the Northwestern Wildcats football program, it appears you can trust one thing.
That one thing is that Clayton Thorson will find a way to dial up his best against the Michigan State Spartans.
Coming in to Saturday’s contest with Michigan State, Thorson had put up 637 yards and seven total touchdowns while completing 72 percent of his passes in just two games.
History repeated itself on Saturday, despite the Spartans holding Northwestern to 10 total yards on the ground. Instead, Thorson ripped apart the MSU secondary for 373 yards and three touchdowns. He also completed 31 of 47 passes.
It all added up to a 29-19 victory and proof positive that Thorson is MSU’s Kryptonite.
At least this time around it wasn’t all on Thorson’s shoulders though, as he got a ton of help from his defense.
Michigan State’s rushing game woes continued as Northwestern held the Spartans to just 96 yards on the ground. The Wildcats defense also forced 11 stops on third downs, meaning MSU would go just 4 of 15 on third downs in the game.
Spartans signal caller Brian Lewerke gave his best effort, but having to attempt 51 passes (and completing just 31 of them) is not what MSU’s offense is built for.
Wide receiver Felton Davis III did everything in his power too. He had seven receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown, while adding another touchdown on the ground too.
But, he was the only one that really showed up and MSU seemed unable to get out of its own way for large parts of the game.
Meanwhile, Thorson made the most of his opportunities. That included catching MSU peaking in to the backfield early on in this game and connecting with a wide open Kyric McGowan for a 77-yard touchdown to make it 7-3 Northwestern with just 18 seconds to go in the first quarter.
It quickly became 14-3 on another Thorson touchdowns pass and his third touchdown of the game gave the Wildcats the final go-ahead score of the game.
He hit Cameron Green on a 21-yard pass with 15 seconds left to go in the third quarter to make it 22-19.
The final dagger came on Northwestern’s final drive of the game. After a quarter of nothing, Thorson put one in on the ground from two yards out to make it the final 29-19 margin with 2:51 to play.
Thus continued the yo-yo season for the Wildcats and the head-scratching start to the Spartans season as well.
5 biggest Big Ten West division Spring Football storylines
What are the biggest storylines to follow as teams across the Big Ten West division begin spring football?
Last week we took a look at the East division, now it is time to go West my friends. While a lot of the questions out East revolve around offense, will the same hold true in the West division?
With a new head coach in at Nebraska, new coordinators in other places and plenty of high-level recruiting happening, there is no shortage of intrigue in the
Let’s take a look at the 5 biggest storylines we’ll watch this spring in the Big Ten West division.
Frost’s First Spring
As if there is any storyline bigger in the West division than prodigal son returning to bring the
Let’s just consider it the West division’s version of Jim Harbaugh, shall we.
Nebraska fans are hoping that the results are at least as good if not better than what Harbaugh has brought to Michigan to date, and sadly getting to the 10-win mark would be a huge win for the Huskers of today.
Frost will have a big challenge on his hand, needing to rebuild the run game, strengthen a porous defense and bring the pride back to the Huskers program.
Oh, and he’ll have to break in a new quarterback to go with all of the rest of the tweaks needed in the program. 4-star dual threat quarterback Adrian Martinez singed early and is on campus already, and there will be competition with much-touted sophomore Patrick O’Brien in the mix as well as redshirt freshman Tristan Gebbia and sophomore Andrew Bunch.
O’Brien, Gebbia and Bunch are more the classic West Coast style of QB, and that may make Frost’s first season an interesting one in Lincoln.
Northwestern’s Life Without Thorson and Jackson
Northwestern knew that 2018 would be a challenge, especially with the graduation of easily the greatest running back in school history. With Justin Jackson graduated, where would the Wildcats turn to get the production needed.
Then the 2018 season was dealt a brutal blow as quarterback Clayton Thorson tore up his knee on a trick play in the Music City Bowl. He’ll likely be back for fall camp, but in what shape and condition will that be? A torn ACL for a mobile quarterback can be a game changer and in any case this upcoming season is going to be his last in a Wildcats uniform.
So, as Northwestern heads in to spring practice, it will get a big glimpse of its future life without its two biggest names. We’ll see plenty of reps for junior T.J. Green, redshirt freshman Andrew Marty, and sophomore Aidan Smith this spring. Northwestern opens with Purdue on Aug. 30 and should Thorson not be ready to go, spring could go a long way to deciding who gets the nod.
Leonhard’s Big Test at Wisconsin
Rumors circulated throughout much of December and in to January that Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a candidate for the Florida State defensive coordinator position. That’s what happens when year one of you as UW’s DC ends with the Badgers having one of the best defenses in the country.
Year two will be a different story though, as Leonhard faces a secondary that loses 3 starters, a defensive line that loses both starting ends and both starting outside linebackers. Wisconsin has proven to be a plug-and-play program at outside linebacker and that shouldn’t be an issue with the likes of Andrew Van Ginkle and Tyler Johnson having gained plenty of experience last season. There’s also intrigue in names like Christian Bell and redshirt freshman Noah Burks.
However, things are dicey in the secondary as only one player with any real game experience is back at cornerback and that is Donyte Carrier-Williams. So, this is where Leonhard would be earning a salary increase this spring. He’ll have to mold a really young group of cornerbacks in to a quality group of players given all the spread offenses that will be in place across the West division — with all but Iowa running some version of the spread attack.
Can names like Madison Cone, Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks show enough for the coaching staff to be confident in them going in to the season or will their need to be a lean on the newcomers in the fall? There certainly won’t be a shortage of reps and opportunity for playing time in this spring.
Lovie’s Last-Ditch Offensive Overhaul
There isn’t a bigger trainwreck in the Big Ten than Illinois Fighting Illini athletics (not just football) at the moment. So, this spring is all about finding some hope for the football program. To that end, head coach Lovie Smith enters his second full offseason in a position to overhaul his offense.
It started as quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. decided to leave the program and continued with the hire of Arizona offensive coordinator Rod Smith. The Wildcats offense has been amongst the most prolific and high-scoring in the country, but this is Big Ten land where defense reigns supreme. Can Smith translate his Wildcats offense to something that works in Champaign?
Cam Thomas is the lone scholarship quarterback and proved a much better rushing threat than anything in the pass game last season. So, Smith’s first task is to see if Thomas has what it takes to really lead a spread offense like his. If not, this could be a long spring spent trying to find answers to a whole lot of questions.
I love getting Smith away from Arizona, it was a master stroke by Smith, but will it be enough, soon enough to keep his job? Athletic director Mike Thomas seems to have a long-term plan in place and the patience to see it out with Smith, but real progress needs to shown this spring and in the fall for that patience to be warranted.
Let’s see if this last-ditch effort pays off.
Brohm’s Encore Performance
What Jeff Brohm did in one season at the helm of the Purdue Boilermakers football program was nothing short of remarkable. He took a program left for dead and not only gave it life, but a bowl game appearance in his first season. It’s no wonder his name came up for the Tennessee job this offseason.
But, this season there are actual expectations following that 7-6 finish last season and this spring will see some big changes to the program. That’s not a bad thing, because Purdue got to a bowl game with a lot of smoke and mirrors while it awaited more talent to come aboard in West Lafayette, Ind.
There was also a reliance on a pretty good defense last season, one that featured talented linebackers T.J. McCollum and Ja’Whaun Bentley. Both are gone now and replacing their production and leadership will be key this spring. Luckily, the returning starter is Markus Bailey, who could be poised for a national breakout year now that the spotlight is all to his own. Beyond that, this is a position that will be a microcosm of the team, as they see what kind of talent is coming in and how fast they can contribute.
5 reasons to watch Northwestern Wildcats vs. Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl
The Northwestern Wildcats look to keep their hot streak going as they go up against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Music City Bowl.
The Northwestern Wildcats entered the season with big expectations. With senior running back Justin Jackson and junior quarterback Clayton Thorson, it felt like a perfect storm for the Wildcats. A chance to compete for a Big Ten title in a weakened West Division.
Things never turn out easy. A slow start and losses to Wisconsin and Penn State quickly ended those dreams.
Then the win streak started. Seven straight wins, including three straight overtime victories for the first time in NCAA history, later and Northwestern put together a pretty successful season. The Wildcats have one of the longest win streaks in the country and ended up with the nine-win season so many projected them to get.
Yet, the disappointment is real. The Wildcats thought they might be playing for a title this year . . . and probably playing a January bowl game at least. The Music City Bowl has a bit of a letdown feel to it.
It should not. Despite increased expectations from Pat Fitzgerald’s superb coaching, Northwestern still values every bowl experience. And this will be their first Music City Bowl.
The chance to beat a SEC team, even one that has struggled as much as Kentucky, will still be a treat. Northwestern knows not to take these appearances for granted.
The same as their Wildcat counterparts for this game. Kentucky is not exactly a football power either. They are a team with just eight bowl wins in 16 appearances. Kentucky is excited for the opportunity to score an upset.
Running back Benny Snell is already guaranteeing victory:
Kentucky started the year 5-2 and 6-3 before finishing the year with three losses in the last four games. That included crushing losses to rival Louisville and Georgia.
Kentucky’s statistical profile is nothing impressive. But the team still has some strong, opportunistic players.
This game appears to have a little more juice than the team’s poor histories might suggest. And this is really a matchup of two programs looking for their place in the national landscape. It should make for an intriguing matchup. One that may not be as lopsided as the records might suggest.
Justin Jackson, ball carrier
The Music City Bowl will mark the last time Justin Jackson dons a Northwestern uniform. In four years, Jackson has set all kinds of records and is a standard of excellence for running backs in Northwestern history.
After a slow start to the season, Jackson rushed for 1,154 yards for his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing year. He 96.2 rushing yards per game and nine touchdowns. Some of those numbers are somewhat modest. But that is also who Jackson is.
Jackson is a workhorse. A humble guy who simply shows up and falls forward. He earned the nickname the “Ballcarrier” based on the Ryan Field public address call “Justin Jackson, the ball carrier.” That is the best description for him.
Jackson had a big game at last year’s Pinstripe Bowl and is looking for a repeat performance in his final game at Northwestern.
Running back battle
This game will be a more traditional Big Ten, ground and pound game. Both teams want to run the ball and have great running backs to do so.
Benny Snell Jr. is not merely offering a guarantee. That is motivation for himself. He has the power to change the game.
Snell rushed for 1,318 yards this year and 18 touchdowns. He averaged 109.8 yards per game. He is a tough player to contain as the sophomore rushed for more than 150 yards in three of his last five games. That included 200-plus yards against Louisville.
He faces a stout run defense. Northwestern’s run defense helped hold Saquon Barkley in check and is one of the best rushing defenses in the country, giving up 111.3 rushing yards per game.
Kentucky knows it must establish the run to win this game. The Wildcats will rely heavily on their sophomore back.
Clayton Thorson on display
Clayton Thorson made some minor (but expected) news this week when he announced he would return for his senior year. After an up-and-down season for the junior quarterback, the NFL was kind of an afterthought. There was some early draft buzz for him and he clearly has the talent. But the consistency was never there.
This game could be another chance to showcase himself and rebuild some NFL credibility heading into his senior year. And his last chance to play with Justin Jackson will serve as an unofficial passing of the torch. Next year, Northwestern will rely heavily on Thorson.
Kentucky’s pass defense has had its struggles. The Wildcats gave up 263.5 passing yards per game. And they recorded only five interceptions. This was not an opportunistic defense. And everyone should remember Kentucky giving up two touchdowns in the team’s attempt to end a 30-year losing streak to Florida when cornerbacks failed to get in position to cover wide receivers.
Yes, it actually happened twice.
Turnovers have been Thorson’s weakness this year. He threw 12 interceptions against 15 touchdowns this year. But Thorson is capable of having big throwing games still. When he limits his mistakes — as he has done during the win streak, averaging 215.1 passing yards per game and just five interceptions — he is a dangerous quarterback.
It goes without saying that the team that protects the quarterback will have the best chance to win the game. Both Kentucky and Northwestern have had their struggles along the offensive line. And that will be a point to watch throughout this game.
Kentucky and Northwestern each gave up 29 sacks. That is quite a lot and suggests some holes in the defense. With the Northwestern’s strong run defense and Kentucky’s poor passing offense, it could be a field day in the backfield if Kentucky is forced to pass. Kentucky does not ask quarterback Stephen Johnson to do a whole lot.
Northwestern and Kentucky can both get after the quarterback. Kentucky posted 28 sacks this year and Northwestern had 30.
Josh Allen and Denzil Ware were great getting into the backfield. Allen recorded seven sacks and Ware had 6.5. They could be terrors in the backfield when Northwestern passes. And that has always been something that slows the Wildcats’ offense down.
For Northwestern, Joe Gaziano has eight sacks and has been a great rusher off the edge. Freshman Samdup Miller came on strong to end the year, creating a strong pair of edge rushers.
Northwestern’s defense is really disciplined and playing extraordinarily well to end the season.
What is interesting about the Music City Bowl is its location in Nashville.
Kentucky fans will surely make the relatively short drive from Lexington to Nashville — as they do for the SEC basketball tournament. But for Northwestern fans in Chicago, this is probably the ideal bowl location.
Sure, everyone would have enjoyed a vacation to Florida. And California Wildcats would have loved to drive from Los Angeles to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl or to stay at home in Northern California for the Foster Farms Bowl. But Nashville is a unique trip for Chicagoland Wildcats near the home base.
Nashville is a roughly seven-hour drive straight down I-65. That is relatively close for a bowl game. It seems like several Northwestern fans will take Pat Fitzgerald up on that offer and make the short trip.
American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Who: Northwestern (9-3) vs. Kentucky (7-5)
When: Dec. 29, 4:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. CT (ESPN)
Where: Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.
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