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.
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.
Predicting the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats season
What Northwestern is appropriately billing as the “Best Home Schedule in College Football” stands between the red hot Cats, who ride the longest active winning streak among power conference teams at 8 games into 2018, and their first back-to-back winning regular seasons since doing it three straight from 2008 through 2010. While Pat Fitzgerald has brought Cats fans higher highs in the second half of his first 12 years on the job, reaching 10 wins 3 times, consistency (Justin Jackson notwithstanding) has not been the program’s forte.
One has to believe Fitz has learned the lesson of 2016, where the Cats returned almost everyone from the 10 win regular season of 2015, only to start sluggishly at home against Western Michigan and, gasp, Illinois State. It took a Herculean regular season from Austin Carr and a virtuoso Justin Jackson Pinstripe Bowl to eek out a 7-6 campaign. While the Las Vegas sportsbooks pegged NU for another 6-6 regular season, Fitzgerald would be on the end of the “fool me twice” axiom if he doesn’t get the Cats to 7-5, at a minimum.
Sorting NU’s schedule into three tiers of difficulty, from “easy peasy”, to “flip a coin”, to “ain’t gonna happen” is complicated by the fact that their arguably 3 toughest opponents all come to Evanston. The lone road game versus a ranked team is against Michigan State, a team they’ve beaten each of the last two years, and the last two times they’ve played in Spartan Stadium. In other words, no trips to Clemson or Alabama for NU in 2018.
The Easy Peasy’s
- Week 2: Duke at home. It takes some arrogance to treat Duke this way after their thorough domination of the Cats in Durham last year, but that butt-whooping only serves to make it more likely they will be getting NU’s best shot this time. This is year 4 of 4 in this annual P5 non-conference matchup of schools made for each other, before they take 2019 and ’20 off and resume in ‘21. The thought of NU dropping their home opener after what looks to be a strong start on the road in conference is too unlikely to resemble a coin-flip.
- Week 3: Akron at home. The only real question is whether this, or Illinois, is the Cats’ easiest game. Even a nightmare scenario of looking ahead to Michigan could be cured with a comeback starting as late as mid-3rd quarter. If Akron plays Nebraska tough in the opener, NU will have enough notice to avoid disaster.
- Week 7: Nebraska at home. This is on the fringe of a coin-flip, but NU is wise enough to beat up on Scott Frost before he gets settled in. The home team hasn’t won in this matchup since the Kellogg-Westerkamp hail mary in 2013, but it would take a season collapse the likes of NU’s 2013 for them not to win this one.
- Week 8: At Rutgers. NU may be facing the least intimidating 6-1 B1G team in history on October 20th. Rutgers has the most back-heavy schedule in all of college football. Their lowest ranked November opponent is #14 Michigan. It’s imperative that NU start their losing streak in October.
- Week 12: At Minnesota. It’s a long season, and a lot can change by mid-November, but Minnesota’s offense was just too putrid against quality competition in 2017 for me to fear a repeat of 2016, when they beat NU thoroughly at home. If things are going well for NU, they should have the finish line in sight and leave no room for a Gopher upset.
- Week 13: Illinois at home. Prove me wrong Lovie. Inject life into the Illini. I say it as a graduate of Champaign, having seen J. Leman and Rashard Mendenhall turn things around near instantaneously firsthand. It’s been done, but until it’s happening, run up the score Fitz. The Cats could always use more style points.
- Week 1: At Purdue. While I’m very confident NU will win, likely by 10+, it’s more of a gut feeling, and this game could easily be an ambush if NU lets the crowd get into it or the secondary loses focus. I’m of the belief Clayton Thorson is 95% healthy or better, and will be the starter Thursday night. The key to this game will be NU’s offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage against a Purdue defense seeking to replace key pieces from 2017. Some short throws to Nagel, Lees and Green, but a heavy dose of Jeremy Larkin should be expected. Maybe even John Moten can rediscover the magic of his career day in West Lafayette in 2016.
- Week 6: At Michigan State. It appears I’m more skeptical of Sparty than the average critic. Dantonio’s a very solid coach, and barring multiple upsets and injuries, MSU will be a 10-15 point favorite in this contest. I just don’t see MSU recreating the magic of 2015’s run to the playoff. The fact NU faces the Spartans a week before their season-defining Penn St-Michigan back-to-back opens the door to a look ahead trap scenario as well. NU will be the underdog, but this a very winnable game.
- Week 9: Wisconsin at home. Color me skeptical of the 2018 Badgers given the absurdly high expectations the national media has bestowed upon them. The last time UW was this high (#4) in the AP Preseason Poll was 2000, and the eventual 8-4 campaign’s derailment was started by none other than a Damien Anderson led NU team. I get that Jonathan Taylor is a stud and the line is so good they could probably run Hornibrook off-tackle for 4 yards a carry. But returning just 3 starters on defense is a big deal. Unless Hornibrook plays at his Orange Bowl level week-in week-out the margin of error isn’t there for a playoff a run through a schedule that includes Iowa, Michigan, NU, Penn State and Purdue, all on the road.
- Week 10: Notre Dame at home. Like the MSU game, NU comes into this matchup with a 2-game winning streak against the Irish. Similar to Fitzgerald at NU, Brian Kelly has had a difficult time backing up his 10 win seasons in South Bend, never doing better than an 8-4 regular season. This game may very well come down to the team who has more to play for by the time November 3rd rolls around. If NU has come through against even just one of Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin, they should have enough wind at their back to give ND a very tough game.
- Week 11: At Iowa. Pat Fitzgerald’s notorious success against Iowa has been on display recently, winning each of the last 2 seasons to get to 7-5 versus the Hawkeyes all-time as a coach. It was especially ugly last year, winning 17-10 in OT. However, I’m bullish on Iowa this year thinking that their draw of Wisconsin and NU at home may provide the tiebreaker boost they need in the B1G West. An Iowa win is anything but a foregone conclusion though, just look at how the Cats turned their 2016 season around with a win there despite going in 1-3.
Ain’t Gonna Happen
- Week 5: Michigan at home. I don’t really think this is a game that is impossible to win, but at the same time I think there’s a 0.0% chance NU goes 12-0 in the regular season, so winning them all is fairly described as “ain’t gonna happen”. The problem, as brutally evidenced in the 2015 38-0 shutout, is that Michigan’s strengths are perfectly suited to beat Northwestern. They’re impossible to run against, so you have to throw, but NU lacks the over-the-top speed on the outside to open up anything underneath. On offense, Michigan doesn’t open themselves up to negative run plays, mainly operating between the tackles, forcing an undersized NU team to repeatedly stuff them and avoiding a situation where NU’s front 7 can be aggressive. Michigan has won 5 straight and 10 of 11 against the Cats since the instant super-classic 54-51 NU win in 2000 (aka “the Anthony Thomas fumble game”). But they won 19 straight before NU knocked them out in the Big House in 1995, the first of two straight Cats wins. So never say never.
If NU can manage to win 3 of 5 coin-flips, which I think they certainly can given that Purdue is really on the margin, that would take them to 9-3. Sweeping the divisional games and holding up at Rutgers just might be enough to get to Indianapolis. The clear next step for a program itching to take it.
For another perspective, here’s a look at our Publisher, Andrew Coppens, and his game-by-game breakdown of the Wildcats:
Northwestern Wildcats trying to get out of the wheel of mediocrity
The Northwestern Wildcats have reached a consistent level where they can compete for a bowl game and achieve some of their goals. When will they finally contend for a Big Ten title? That is still the question for this program.
The Northwestern Wildcats’ goal board is the same every year. On top is to win the College Football Playoff. Beneath that is to win a bowl game. Beneath that is to win a Big Ten title. Beneath, that the Big Ten West. And then the various goals to get better every day and do well academically and in the weight room.
The Wildcat Way, etc.
Many of those goals have seemed aspirational in the past. They were the direction the team wanted to move in and get to. They needed the tools — hello Ryan Fieldhouse — to get there. And they needed the results.
The Wildcats now have two 10-win seasons in the last three years. They have reached a level of consistency the program has never seen before, constantly graduating classes with the most wins in school history.
Northwestern’s general football progress is moving in the right direction. Things are constantly looking up for the program.
The Wildcats have the feeling they are on the precipice.
But it would not be Northwestern if there was not that constant feeling of dread. That feeling the team is on the precipice of collapse. For every 10-3 Gator Bowl season there are the two 5-7 seasons that followed where Northwestern failed to live up to its weighty expectations. Or for every 10-3 Outback Bowl season there is a frustrating 7-6 season that follows.
How will Northwestern follow this 10-3 iteration? One where their quarterback will start the season recovering from an ACL tear (unclear for August’s opener at Purdue) and they will be replacing their starting running back and all-time leading rusher?
One where Northwestern too will face an incredibly difficult schedule that features home games against Notre Dame, Michigan and Wisconsin. Getting back to 10-3 this year will be difficult. And, on top of that, Northwestern will have to avoid the slow starts that have plagued the last few seasons.
The Wildcats cannot afford losses to Duke like it did last year or <gasp> Western Michigan and Illinois State like two years ago. That was a big reason for that season’s ultimate disappointment.
Northwestern the last few years has been good enough to be a threat and put together solid seasons — with solid bowl games to follow (and two straight bowl wins). But the Wildcats have not ever been a threat to win the Big Ten West. Even with those 10-3 seasons on their ledger.
Last year, Northwestern had the early loss to Duke, but then lost to Wisconsin and Penn State in its first two Big Ten games. That took the team out of the running from the start. The Wildcats were never Big Ten West contenders last year unless Wisconsin seriously slipped up. Just like they were never contenders in the Big Ten West in 2015 after the Hawkeyes thrashed them at Ryan Field on their way to an undefeated regular season.
Where does this leave Northwestern this year? Where does that leave the team for the future?
The next two seasons feel like transition years. Northwestern has long relied on “perfect” seasons where veteran leaders at key positions align to have special seasons. That was certainly last year with Justin Jackson playing his senior year with several veterans on defense and Clayton Thorson as a junior quarterback.
Thorson is a senior this year and while Northwestern’s defense has reached a level of consistency in the past few seasons, it is a veteran group with experience all over. Next year’s team will not have the same kind of reliable talent — barring any surprise emerging players this year, which is very possible especially on defense.
Not even Hunter Johnson and his potential replacing Clayton Thorson would seemingly save the Wildcats from that realm of uncertainty with their roster and their future.
Northwestern’s future seems much brighter than it did a decade ago. Recruiting continues to go smoothly — see the recruitment of Hunter Johnson and the continuing emergence of young players like Samdup Miller and Paddy Fisher — and the new facilities will attract more eyes and attention from recruits considering the school.
That all seems to suggest Northwestern will see the results match on the field. The program should get better — getting rid of those repeated 5-7 seasons. Quickly the baseline for Northwestern is to make a bowl game. The Wildcats have already probably reached that level.
The question it feels facing the program is how it takes the next level and competes for a Big Ten title. How does the program become something more?
Everyone recognizes Northwestern is no longer a pushover. They are a team that will challenge every team in the conference for sure and be a threat to score a big bowl win. The Wildcats go into every game expecting to win. That is not something everyone could say when Pat Fitzgerald took over a decade ago.
That kind of progress should be celebrated. But it is not enough. The Wildcats now have to take that next step. They have to become true Big Ten threats.
That might be the tough thing to see this year with so many questions throughout the roster — at quarterback most of all, but even at running back as Jeremy Larkin takes over and in Northwestern’s usually strong secondary. The Wildcats will expect a bowl game again and to win that bowl game. How the program grows and what it does to surprise will be what everyone eagerly awaits.
At some point, Northwestern has to step off the wheel and make a run at the Big Ten title. It just might be a while for the pieces to align perfectly to do so.