Pat Fitzgerald has overseen some of the best defensive units in Northwestern history as both a player and a coach. When he took over as coach a decade ago, Northwestern’s defense was seen as a hindrance. It always did just enough to let NU eke by. At some point, everyone knew he would force a change to the roster and make the team’s defense its calling card.
And now, as the Wildcats have seemingly reached the peak of their program, the defense has led the way. In winning 10 games in two of the past three seasons, it was Northwestern’s defense leading the way.
That is exactly what Fitzgerald always imagined. That was exactly how he played and exactly how his teams were going to play. Now it feels like it is the offense holding the defense back.
That is not to say this is a perfect unit. The Wildcats struggled to keep their secondary healthy and would give up huge chunks through the air.
But this team also did something no one though a Wildcats team would be able to do consistently — plug up the line and control the line of scrimmage. Through disciplined gap control and rushers off the edge who can get to the quarterback in obvious passing downs, the Wildcats created a stingy defense that will bend but rarely break. They get turnovers when they absolutely need it and always give their team a chance to win. Even in sometimes gritty ways.
Coming off another 10-win season where the Wildcats ranked 23rd overall in Defensive S&P+ and 20th against the run, giving up 107.7 rushing yards per game, Northwestern will again rely heavily on its defense to push it into Big Ten contention.
While the team loses some key players in the secondary, this will again be a strong front seven that will make it hard to establish a ground game and force precision in the pass game to break the defense down.
Biggest Question Mark:
Who steps up in the secondary?
Northwestern’s big weak link on defense was its passing game. The “Sky Team,” as they have dubbed themselves the last two seasons, has plenty of talent. Injuries have depleted that talent each year. Crushing injuries stretched the group thin.
And the stats showed it. Northwestern gave up 249.5 yards per game in the air. Time and again, the Wildcats gave up huge chunks on the ground. They stopped Saquon Barkley for much of the game against Penn State, but Chase McSorley threw for 245 yards. Brian Lewerke of Michigan State threw for 445 yards.
Northwestern gave up boatloads of points in both games. Still, this group stepped up every time. With senior leadership in Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro graduating, the question remaining is who will step up in this group that was already struggling.
Northwestern’s front seven should be strong once again (although filling the large hole Tyler Lancaster leaves will be a major question). This team and create a decent pass rush with Joe Gaziano and Sam Miller coming off the edges. The question is whether the secondary will give them enough time to build that pressure.
Reason to be Optimistic:
The front seven returns
At the beginning of last season, the big question facing Northwestern was whether its front seven would be able to create pressure. The linebackers were all new after the Wildcats graduated stud Anthony Walker. And the team had some struggles building a consistent pass rush.
Those struggles seemed warranted after it struggled out of the gate. The Wildcats were getting zero push.
But the coaching staff made adjustments and the defense stepped up throughout the year. Especially the front seven. Northwestern totaled 32 sacks by the end of the year. Paddy Fisher emerged as one of the best first-year players in the country at linebacker. Players throughout the defensive front seven stepped up with big games time and time again, whether it was Fisher, Sam Miller, Joe Gaziano, Nate Hall or Tyler Lancaster.
And the team loses only Lancaster from the front seven. The Northwestern No. 1 is going to be a tough player to replace. He filled a big hole in the middle of the line. But Fitzgerald has turned the front seven into the centerpiece of his program.
And that usually means a team will have a strong defense.
Reason to be Pessimistic
Depth is always a concern
Northwestern is still a team that has concerns about depth. The players the team hits on are really good and it can usually rely on a rotation of players to fill in. But injuries to the wrong position or the wrong impact players, and the quality of play decreases dramatically. Just look at the team’s talented secondary the last few years.
The team is not always the deepest and could rely on several first-year players to step up. That is always a risky proposition. Northwestern usually works hard to protects its incoming freshman, choosing to redshirt many of them. There will still be plenty of freshmen who see the field.
Northwestern will rely heavily on the starting rotation though to produce. And any slow down could lead to a significant downgrade.
Just look at the Music City Bowl. When Nate Hall and Paddy Fisher went out, Northwestern’s defense opened up like a sieve. The passing game became far worse against a team that had struggled to throw the ball all game. The Wildcats were flailing a bit defensively and went for it on fourth down and one largely to keep its own defense off the field (a gamble that is worth its own debates and posts).
The team came up big on the two-point conversion as it always seemed to. But the team went from strong defensive unit to struggling defensive unit very very quickly.
This is an obvious problem for many teams. But it seems especially prescient for Northwestern.
Projected Starting Lineup
DE: Sam Miller, So.
DT: Jordan Thompson, Sr.
DT: Ben Oxley, Sr.
DE: Joe Gaziano, Jr.
WILL: Nathan Fox, Jr.
MIKE: Paddy Fisher, So.
SAM: Nate Hall, Sr.
CB: Montre Hartage, Sr.
S: Jared McGee, Sr.
S: JR Pace, So.
CB: Trae Williams, Jr.
This Northwestern defense will again be the bedrock for the team next year. With Justin Jackson graduating and Clayton Thorson’s status uncertain after tearing his ACL in the bowl game, the team will need its defensive unit to be strong and give the team good field position and low scores.
The defense has the potential to be a solid Northwestern group. This is an experienced group with a lot of veteran leaders. They have solid young players who should continue to grow in Paddy Fisher and Sam Miller. And they return nearly every impact player in the front seven.
The secondary will replace some key players too. But they have experience as both newcomers to the secondary saw time on the field last year.
That does not mean this group will not have to step up. Is this unit capable of carrying the load fully? It might have to.
The Wildcats have built their program up to rely on this bedrock. And the 2018 season could further cement that identity.
2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know
What some may argue was one of the most intriguing and surprising seasons in recent Big Ten football history comes to a close on Saturday as the expected meets the unexpected.
It’ll be the Ohio State Buckeyes against the Northwestern Wildcats for all the Big Ten marbles. For Ohio State it also means a potential berth in the College Football Playoffs are on the line.
All week long we will take an in-depth look at this unexpected matchup. It starts today with a look at the 5 things to know about these two teams.
5: Northwestern’s 5th in scoring defense in the Big Ten
That may not be a mind-blowing stat, but believe it or not the Wildcats have the better defense going in to this game and that can matter a lot when the nerves and dust settles on this game.
Northwestern is allowing an average of just 21.7 points per game this season. Only three teams scored 30 points or more on the Wildcats — Akron, Nebraska and Notre Dame.
Conversely, six of the last eight opponents have failed to score 20 or more points and only Michigan (20) and Nebraska (31) scored more than 20 points on Northwestern in Big Ten play.
On the flip side, Ohio State’s defense comes in 7th in the Big Ten — giving up 25.8 points per game and allowing 40 touchdowns to opponents.
4: This is Ohio State’s 4th Big Ten championship game appearance
It seems like old hat at this point, but the Buckeyes aren’t the record holders for most appearances in the title game just yet. That honor belongs to the Wisconsin Badgers with five appearances.
Still, no other team knows the ins and outs of Lucas Oil Stadium as well as the Buckeyes or Badgers do. That experience inside the stadium and with all the things happening around the game will matter a bit, especially early on in this game.
OSU holds a 2-1 record in the three previous games, beating Wisconsin twice and losing a 34-24 decision to Michigan State in 2013.
A win in this game would break a three-way tie for most title game wins with MSU and Wisconsin — all of which have won twice in Indy.
3: OSU QB Dwayne Haskins is averaging just over 3 TD passes per game
The record books have loved putting Dwayne Haskins’ name in them in 2018. I mean, he broke a record I thought never would be broken — Drew Brees’ single-season touchdown record — by throwing 42 touchdowns and counting.
Doing the mental math there, that means he is averaging 3.5 passing touchdowns per game. It also means he leads the country in passing touchdowns this season. Will Greir is next on the list, but he’s five touchdown passes behind Haskins. That’s how good of a season he’s having.
It’s led to a record-breaking six Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week awards this year. Oh, and his 4,081 yards already this year make him one of only two quarterbacks to do that in the 2018 regular season.
As for Northwestern? This could all be dangerous news, especially considering the fact that the Wildcats are 11th in the Big Ten in passing defense (238.0 yards per game). The good news is NU’s pass defense has bent, but not broken a lot — giving up just nine passing touchdowns to opponents this year.
Which will win out? The Buckeyes pass attack that gets yards and scores or the NU defense that allows yards, but not touchdowns through the air…
2: Northwestern has fumbled the ball just twice all season
One way to win close games is by not making big mistakes. Northwestern has been pretty good about that, fumbling the ball just twice this season. It’s the lowest total in the Big Ten and tied for fewest in the country with Mississippi State.
Unfortunately, the Wildcats also had 13 interceptions on the year. Only Rutgers (22), Minnesota (14) and Illinois (14) had more interceptions thrown on the year.
Ohio State’s defense has been one of the best in forcing fumbles this season. It’s 11 fumbles gained are second in the Big Ten to Indiana’s 13.
Which one will give on Saturday in Indianapolis?
1: It’s Northwestern’s first appearance in the Big Ten championship game
A lot of the talk this week will not only center on Ohio State’s CFB Playoff hopes, but also on the fact that Northwestern is making the trip to Indianapolis for the first time.
There have been seven Big Ten championship games and excluding the first ever edition of it, only one team making its first appearance in the title game has won. That was Penn State beating Wisconsin in the title game back in 2016.
In total teams are 1-3 in their first appearance in the game. It’ll be a major talking point and rightfully so, as the hoopla and extra stuff around the game make this very different than any bowl game other than the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten team.
How Fitzgerald and the Wildcats coaches handle figuring out how to handle all the extra stuff will be vital. Some will try to embrace everything that happens, others will insulate their kids. It really depends on the personality of the team and getting it right can mean as much as getting the game plan right on game day.
WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena
After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season.
On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener.
Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside.
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.