Northwestern has spent much of its program history seeking an identity outside futility. The joke remains college football history begins in 1995 because Northwestern’s history is largely and completely forgettable before that breakthrough Rose Bowl season.
That team was built on its defense.
A junior linebacker took the lead as the program transformed itself that year and made a surprising run to the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Pat Fitzgerald made his name as the tough-nosed, hardworking, under-recruited linebacker racking up awards and turning in the best season Northwestern had seen in several decades.
He backed that up. Winning the Nagurski and Bednarik Awards for a second straight year and delivering to Northwestern a second straight Big Ten title.
The Wildcats’ greatest teams were built through Fitzgerald and that defense’s sheer force of will.
As quickly as Northwestern rose with Fitzgerald as the anchor of that defense, it disappeared just as quickly when he graduated.
The Wildcats’ defense never hit those marks again. When Northwestern won the Big Ten in 2000 with Randy Walker in charge, it was because of a dynamic spread offense, new to the Big Ten. As the Wildcats began making an unprecedented run of bowl games, it was always on the offense putting up video game numbers.
That was the legacy Pat Fitzgerald took over when he suddenly became head coach in 2006. This was a program that made up for its talent disadvantage with a smart offensive gameplan. It used schematics to make up for its lack of athleticism and sometimes talent.
This was never who Pat Fitzgerald was though. He was running a spread offense (and still does), but he wanted a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust offense. Even without a strong running back, he sought balance between run and the pass.
His team’s defense was never consistent. What he made his name as a player was not the team he had to coach. And the team’s inconsistency was apparent.
Fitzgerald became head coach before he was ready to do so. It took him some time to find his footing. Slowly though he built up the recruiting base. Bowl games became an expectation not a wish. Fitzgerald became Northwestern’s all-time winningest coach.
After 10 years as the team’s head coach, he has reached not only a comfort zone as the coach, but has established a stronger recruiting base than Northwestern has experienced before.
The program has truly begun to fit his vision.
It reached perhaps its zenith in the surprise 2015 season. Northwestern was no longer a team with a passive read and react defense. Mike Hankwitz’s defense had grown into the team’s strength. The talent had grown.
Northwestern does not outscore opponents anymore. The team holds teams to a number its offense has to reach.
Last year, the Wildcats had the fifth best defense in the country according to Football Outsiders’ S&P+. It was the culmination of a trend upward for Northwestern the last several years — even through two difficult years just outside the bowl picture.
The Wildcats hit their first peak in 2008 when they were 36th in S&P+. That unit helped NU to Fitzgerald’s first Top-25 ranking and the Alamo Bowl. But it quickly dissipated — No. 51 in 2009, No. 95 in 2010, No. 100 in 2011 and even No. 50 in that breakthrough 2012 Gator Bowl championship season.
Northwestern as a program has never been anything to write home about defensively. The program’s successful teams have always had strong offenses with a defense just good enough for them to survive.
As the team struggled to gain consistency, its defense continued to be a big source for that inconsistency. Slowly they began rebuilding the defense. The turn began even as they won five games. The defense was able to carry more weight.
And then last year’s breakthrough. The defense was the team. It carried the whole group on its back as the offense adjusted to a freshman at quarterback.
With Anthony Walker, a player some have projected as a first round pick in the NFL Draft as a junior, the Wildcats seem locked to do it again on the defensive end. With seven of the top 11 recruits according to 247Sports Composite Rankings in Northwestern’s 2017 class coming on the defensive side, the Wildcats are attracting defensive players and making this their new identity.
And with Justin Jackson as the “bell cow” back, Fitzgerald finally has the running balance. And possibly some talent behind him. Northwestern can achieve that balance they have sought throughout Fitzgerald’s tenure.
It took a decade for Pat Fitzgerald, but he has created the team he always envisioned. It is one that can be successful as he continues to build the recruiting base and the program’s identity.
This is the team Fitzgerald has always wanted. This is the team Northwestern had to become to reach consistency.
The Wildcats are not there yet. Everything is precarious with Northwestern and the limitations and history involved with the program. The team does not have to win 10 games again. It cannot return to just outside a bowl game or barely in either.
Northwestern should not with the culture and the talent it has established on the defensive end.
Fitzgerald has his team. Northwestern is ready to make its next step.
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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