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4 questions facing the Northwestern Wildcats at B1G Media Days

The Northwestern Wildcats face a lot of big expectations as they take to Big Ten Media Days. They have a lot of questions still to answer.

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Clayton Thorson, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes

The Big Ten football season got its official start Monday as the coaches took their turn at the podium to address the assembled media before their seasons begin in the next few weeks. Pat Fitzgerald had his turn Tuesday as he spoke about a wide range of issues including new targeting rules, the Wildcats’ future with their new facilities and the momentum from winning a bowl game.

It is an exciting time for Northwestern. The 2017 season brings with it a lot of promise — even with some holes to fill.

The Wildcats will get started with training camp in a few weeks as they deal with the expectations of winning a bowl game and being one of the dark horse favorites to win a wide open Big Ten West. All with veteran players in key positions.

These are the seasons where Pat Fitzgerald and his stable staff have struggled to get Northwestern over the top. This is the part of the year where Northwestern fans become suspicious with all the accolades coming the team’s way. Fans do not know how to deal with these expectations.

Fans have the luxury of worrying about this stuff. Pat Fitzgerald and the team have the burden of doing something about it.

Everyone is expecting big things from this team. But Fitzgerald, understated as always, is not buying into the hype. He is worried about going 1-0 every week and putting his team in the best position to win. He has all the tools it seems and the confidence Northwestern can get there.

Still, questions remain.

Here are five Northwestern faces as Big Ten Media Days come to a close.

How do the Wildcats handle success?

One of the more intriguing questions Pat Fitzgerald fielded during his media session came from Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune. Greenstein asked Fitzgerald whether he would have preferred having to lose a bowl game and find that hunger in the offseason.

That question got a bit of a chuckle. Of course, Fitzgerald would rather win the bowl game. And for a Northwestern program with only three bowl wins (including last year’s Pinstripe Bowl victory), every bowl win matters. They still feel very special to the team.

More than anything, that bowl victory was a culmination of an incredibly strong nine-game finish to the season where Northwestern saved its season. It was that kind of momentum that leaves the Wildcats in the position of having heavy expectations this year.

Still, there is something to this. The team needs a drive and a hunger for the next year.

The last time Northwestern won a bowl game, the team had Big Ten title expectations. The Wildcats hosted GameDay that year and the completely collapsed, missing a bowl game entirely. Northwestern is always a bit wary of success.

But Fitzgerald has surely learned from that experience. And he expressed his disappointment with how the team started last year. That 1-3 start had the Wildcats in some panic mode as they rallied to get to 6-6 and a bowl game. Northwestern has plenty to feed off to try and get to a better place.

With Wisconsin and Penn State on the schedule to start Big Ten season after a manageable non-conference slate, Northwestern will be dealing with expectations. How they respond will define their season.

Who replaces Anthony Walker?

This question got posed to Fitzgerald directly during his press conference by Inside NU. And it is a question that does have a somewhat clearer answer. But, of course, it will be impossible to replace everything Anthony Walker did for the Wildcats.

Nathan Fox is going to get the first call and he has produced and done some good things on the field already. Fox posted only 12 tackles, but he is fast and has good range. It is just tough to compare anyone to Walker.

More than anything else, the Wildcats have to find a way to replace Walker’s leadership. It is going to be a team effort to replace Walker on the field.

Fox will have to step up. So too will Nate Hall (73 tackles and 6.0 tackles for a loss last year) and Brett Walsh (37 tackles, 1.0 sack last year).

But Northwestern will rely on a lot of new players too. Fitzgerald noted converted running back Warren Long and freshman Paddy Fisher as players who will have to step up too. These are two players who have never stepped foot on the field at linebacker. And Northwestern is indeed relying on them.

The front seven as a whole will be an issue for Northwestern. Anthony Walker left a big void.

Can the offense carry the team?

The team that took the field to start the year and the team that finished the year for Northwestern felt like total opposites.

Somehow the same Wildcats team that scored just seven points at home against Illinois State was the same team that ran all over Pitt and also put up 50-plus points against Michigan State. Northwestern got itself going offensively with Clayton Thorson putting up some stellar offensive passing numbers and Justin Jackson being Justin Jackson.

The Wildcats ran all over the Panthers defense in the Pinstripe Bowl. But the defense did its work.

The Wildcats may have given up a fair amount of points all season, but they came away with crucial turnovers throughout the season. Northwestern was +9 on turnovers last season. The Wildcats made big play after big play at crucial times to get them wins. Walker had a lot of those big plays. So too did graduated defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo.

Northwestern, in other words, is looking for playmakers on defense.

That is going to put all the pressure on the offense to carry the team. Northwestern cannot have too many games like it did early in the season where Clayton Thorson could not complete a pass and Justin Jackson had to manage his workload.

This offense has the potential to be extremely balanced — perhaps the most balanced in Fitzgerald’s time at Northwestern. Thorson and Jackson will have to carry a very heavy load for Northwestern all year. But the team has shifted in the last two or three years from a defense-only team to a team that will rely heavily on the offense.

Northwestern may have to win a few shootouts.

Who catches the ball?

With how important the offense will be this season, the biggest question Northwestern faces will come with who catches the ball when Thorson throws it.

Austin Carr graduated last year after catching 90 of the Wildcats’ 282 completions. Northwestern will need some other receivers to step up. The top returning receiver is junior Flynn Nagel. He is viewed more as a speedster rather than a possession receiver like Carr.

Northwestern could stretch the field, but ultimately the team’s success offensively is in its quick passing attack and throws to the perimeter for extended handoffs and swing passes.

The Wildcats have to find receivers who can step up and get open in between the hash marks and become available for Thorson. A good quarterback should be able to help create openings. Thorson did that with Carr. But Carr also had an innate ability to get open or make some incredible catches. There was complete trust between Thorson and Carr by the end of the season.

Whether it is Flynn Nagel or Garrett Dickerson or Macan Wilson or someone new, Northwestern needs a go-to receiver to unlock the full power of their offense.

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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Football

Northwestern finally solves Ryan Field riddle in OT win

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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. 

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Football

Thorson dials up best against MSU once again

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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. 

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Northwestern

Predicting the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats season

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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.

The Coin-Flips

  • 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.

Overall

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: 

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Northwestern

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.

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Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern Wildcats,

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.

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