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Northwestern seeking a few good receivers for Week One

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Austin Carr

Northwestern’s offense, at least, cannot be any worse than it was last year.

The Wildcats had one of the worst offenses in the league last year, by just about any measure. They were last in the conference in points per game (19.5), last in yards per game (327.1), last in pass offense (138.5) and No. 111 in offensive S&P+, worst in the Big Ten. Northwestern won games by the skin of its teeth, relying heavily on its defense and making big offensive plays when it had to.

The Wildcats certainly do not want a repeat of that. The bounces will not go their way for a second straight 10-win season — at least common sense would dictate that being the case.

There were plenty of reasons for Northwestern’s offensive struggles. It all starts with freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson. The Wildcats kept a pretty tight leash on their young quarterback. The play calls were simple and the team defaulted to controlling the clock on the ground and being one-dimensional. The defense  afforded them that luxury.

That may not be the case this year. And it should not have to be.

Thorson has a year of play — and winning — under his belt. The expectation is he has improved significantly and will be able to do more offensively for the Wildcats.

Of course, his ability to throw the ball and run the offense will be limited by what his receivers can do. And the receivers were arguably as much at fault for Northwestern’s anemic offensive attack last season. The Wildcats had an inordinate amount of drops and the team struggled to get a consistent passing attack because of it.

Gone now are Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, the two most reliable receivers from last year’s team. Veterans Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson also have graduated.

Thorson may have gotten better, but the players he is targeting and throwing to will be as unproven as ever. Coming off a disastrous passing season at that.

As Northwestern prepares to play Western Michigan in its season opener, no question about the team may be as large or as looming as who will step up among the wide receivers.

The Week One depth chart released Monday has captain and leading returning receiver Austin Carr (16 receptions, 302 yards — and that is not a typo), Solomon Vault (a converted running back) and Flynn Nagel (a sophomore who showed promise early last year before injuries knocked him out of the lineup) as the starting wide receivers.

Carr is more of a possession receiver while Vault and Nagel feature much more speed to get down the field. But there is not a ton of experience. Carr is a senior but did not play any meaningful minutes until last season.

The backups are equally inexperienced, including converted wide receiver from cornerback Marcus McShepherd and little-used upperclassmen Andrew Scanlan.

Thorson’s options are not exactly proven.

But if they click, the Wildcats have more athleticism at wide receiver and the some more big-play potential. Vault is an excellent sprinter and has great speed. He was a solid running back option and a dynamic special teams threat for Northwestern last year. McShepherd may not have receiving experience, but he certainly has athletic talent if he started off as a cornerback.

Thorson himself showed plenty of athleticism in rushing touchdowns against Stanford and Nebraska. Those were momentum-changing plays in those two big victories for the Wildcats.

Northwestern will not have an easy game in its opener against Western Michigan. The Broncos feature a strong offense themselves although their defense was not particularly strong last year. The Wildcats are not seeing the Cardinal to start the year like last season, but they will have to get their work in and have to fight for the victory.

Northwestern has a ton of questions to answer ahead of Big Ten season in its three nonconference games. The Wildcats conference season starts off fast and furious. The offense and defense will have to be sharp starting with that opener against Nebraska.

The Wildcats will have to be more effective passing the football to get more out of Justin Jackson and their potent rushing attack. Thorson can only truly improve if the receivers are getting separation and catching the ball. That was something they struggled to do throughout last season.

Saturday represents the first test for the Wildcats as they try to get their offense to climb out of the basement it was in last season.

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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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Under Pressure

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.

Travel Distance

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.

Game Info

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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talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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