While the admittedly ugly, controversial officiating and coaching riddled 2017 Music City Bowl brought Northwestern its 10th win, it came at a potentially high cost to their 2018 campaign. Next season’s expectations, offensively even more so, hinge on star quarterback Clayton Thorson’s recovery from the ACL tear suffered to his right knee in the second quarter of Cats’ bowl win.
The diagnosis was not a total shock as Thorson was carted off, and a replay of the play (a Pat Fitzgerald signature trick reverse WR/RB-throwback) from behind showed the quarterback’s knee hit hard from the side while planted. Surgery is tentatively scheduled for mid-January, and it is unlikely the school will release much information over the offseason.
NU’s spring practice agenda will focus heavily on the QB position, as all options – from Thorson being ready for the Aug. 30 opener at Purdue, to missing the whole season, will likely still be in play during spring ball. Fitzgerald’s 2017 spring schedule went from Feb. 21 to April 8. Depending on how classes are scheduled, it may make sense to push it back to prep for such an important spring.
Biggest Question Mark
Who Replaces Clayton Thorson?
If there’s a positive spin to a replacement for Thorson currently on the roster (Music City winner Matt Alviti having graduated), it’s that Purdue and the rest of NU’s early 2018 opponents won’t have film on him. Barring a yet-to-be-named grad transfer (highly unlikely given Fitzgerald’s preference for developing players within the program), if Thorson is not ready for the opener, the Cats will be starting RS Jr. TJ Green (the only QB besides Thorson and Alviti to see any action in 2017), RS Fr. Andrew Marty, RS Soph. Aidan Smith, or incoming true Fr. Jason Whittaker (MI).
By the time Fitz actually has to make a decision on one of these four options, he will probably know whether he is plugging a starter in for a few weeks as Thorson is just weeks away come the opener, or whether he is looking to find a starter for the 2018 season and potentially beyond. If it is just a very short-term plug-in, Green would fit the mold as a potential August and September game-manager, hoping a more conservative game plan can get NU through at Purdue, and home versus Duke and Akron, leading to a bye week before the conference schedule resumes against Michigan in Evanston.
If the Cats are looking to establish a young quarterback with the best chance to carry 2017’s momentum through 2018, even if it means a more untested game plan to fit that QB’s strengths, Smith and Whittaker become more likely, with Marty being a mix of totally untested on the field, yet more familiar with OC Mick McCall’s scheme.
Spring ball and training camp will ultimately determine Fitz’s decision, and it is the purest of speculation to lean one way or another this early. The bottom-line is that Thorson’s anticipated unavailability is a significant amount of adversity dealt to the Cats, but unlike something midseason, they have 8 months to prepare for his absence, and fill the void to the best extent possible. While the 2018 starter will be very deserving of credit, a fast start to 2018 may be looked back upon as one of Pat Fitzgerald’s finest accomplishments in his NU coaching career.
Reason to be Optimistic
NU’s offensive line
Northwestern’s calling card on offense during the current 3-year bowl stretch, which includes two 10-win seasons (besides Thorson, and dearly departing workhorse RB Justin Jackson), has been a strong running game. Controlling the line of scrimmage, forcing defenses to grossly overload upfront if they are determined to stop the run, which in turn opens up the passing game (2017 OT win vs. Michigan St, case in point), has become the template for NU under McCall. Gone are the days of short passing to avoid getting dominated in the trenches. It is no coincidence that over Fitzgerald’s 12 years as coach, his top three seasons of rushing yards per game, were also his three 10-win seasons of 2012, ’15 and ’17.
NU returns basically every offensive lineman on their 2-deep, aside from starting center Brad North. Based on his stellar freshman campaign, right tackle Rashawn Slater has All-B1G hopes already. Alongside Slater on the right side of the line will be 3-year starter and team leader Tommy Doles. Provided everyone stays healthy, you can expect a lot of runs to the right side in 2018.
The Cats have four experienced offensive linemen returning for the remaining three spots. Blake Hance figures to be making his fourth season as a starter, very possibly moving outside to left tackle. Despite more experience at guard, Hance is the best player available for the all-important blindside tackle position, and moving him outside would allow J.B. Butler to play left guard. Butler has started a year and half worth of games going into 2018, and is well prepared for a full 13 games, likely at guard, but potentially at left tackle or even center. The most likely replacement for North at center is RS Jr. Jared Thomas. He was listed by Fitzgerald as the backup center several times on the 2-deep, and has more experience than the other backup, RS So. Nik Urban. Making a decision on center appears to be the second most vexing offseason task facing Fitz on the offensive side of the ball. Assuming whoever he does plug-in at a minimum gains confidence with experience, the offensive line looks to be a bright spot in 2018.
Reason to be Pessimistic
Replacing Justin Jackson won’t be easy
Justin Jackson’s record breaking career at NU was an example of what durability and consistency can do, despite never jumping off the page in a given play, game or even season. Now obviously, Jackson had some great runs, and certainly his career-high 224 yard, 3 TD performance in the Cats’ 2016 Pinstripe Bowl win will not soon be forgotten by the NU faithful, but his most impressive achievement truly is his four straight 1,000+ yard seasons.
You could literally pencil him in for 1200-1500 yards in August, and move on to the next item on the offensive agenda. Replacing this production will most likely require a group contribution, despite Jeremy Larkin looking to be a promising heir apparent. Fitzgerald snagged former NU RB-turned-DB, Lou Ayeni as RB’s Coach, from Iowa State early in the offseason. Having earned high marks working under Matt Campbell at Toledo, then going to Iowa State in 2014, before Campbell followed two years later, maintaining high-level running back production in the post-Ball Carrier era is foremost on his agenda.
RS Freshman Jeremy Larkin shined in his backup/change-of-pace role in 2017, averaging an impressive 6 yards/carry, and surpassing 100 for a season-high in the Music City Bowl win. That performance put a bow on Larkin’s season, in which he got better as it progressed. Larkin averaged 7.7 yards per carry on his 43 attempts in November and December, compared to just 4.2 yards per prior. Larkin hasn’t shown the strength that allowed Jackson to finish his runs and pile up hidden yards, but he did show an impressive burst, with a very quick first two steps. As is the case with most NU RB’s, the game breaking speed is not what he is known for. Instead, Larkin relies on his low center of gravity two provide shiftiness and elusiveness, avoiding the first one or two tacklers and getting 4-5 yards downfield before the rest of the defense can rally.
Backing up Larkin looks to be an assembly of John Moten IV, a redshirt junior who was JJ’s backup before Larkin saw the field in 2017. Without having seen the incoming true freshman, Moten looks to be the Wildcat RB with highest top-speed for a third straight season. The other RB from the 2017 roster with a shot at increased production is RS So. Jesse Brown. Not be discounted are two of Fitzgerald’s top recruits for 2018 – Isaiah Bowser (OH), and son of all-time NU great Damien Anderson, Drake Anderson (AZ). Both are undersized in the typical NU-mold. It would be a surprise to see both redshirted, but with Fitzgerald, assuming either is guaranteed to play, would be a mistake, especially with a clear starter in Larkin already in place.
Among pass catchers (NU trademark super back included), NU does not lose much at all. In fact, a full season of Jalen Brown, who was lost for the year in the Bowling Green game, may offset the loss of departing possession WR Macan Wilson (crucial to the win at Nebraska). The Cats return leading receiver Jr. Bennett Skowronek, who served as Thorson’s big play target on most downfield throws. Second-leading receiver Flynn Nagel will also be back for his senior year. As promising as these pieces would be with Thorson healthy for another offseason of workouts, it is only more important that these experienced skill position players build a rhythm with the new starter, so the Cats are no more one-dimensional than necessary without their offensive leader.
The biggest loss among receivers is SB Garrett Dickerson. After his older brother Cam left in 2015, Garrett grew into his role as forceful run blocker who consistently made himself available to Thorson in the red zone, catching 9 TD’s over the last two seasons. The leading candidate to replace Dickerson as SB-1 is Cam Green. He is going into his redshirt junior season, and showed signs of potential at Maryland, filling in for Dickerson, and against MSU, where the Cats were forced to use the air, notching 76 yards and a TD to tie it in the 1st OT. It’s no coincidence that neither Green nor Dickerson played in the bowl game, when NU ran for over triple the yards they gained passing. Two TE/SB’s are part of the 2018 recruiting class, and given the lack of experience on the roster, I expect either or both Charlie Mangieri (Dunlap, IL) and Brian Kaiser (Winnetka, IL) to play a role. At 6’7”, if Kaiser can get the system, he will be a useful target, especially in the red zone.
Projected Starting Lineup
WR: Bennett Skowronek
WR: Jalen Brown
WR: Flynn Nagel
SB: Cam Green
SB: Brian Kaiser
RT: Rashawn Slater
RG: Tommy Doles
C: Jared Thomas
LG: J.B. Butler
LT: Blake Hance
RB: Jeremy Larkin
QB: Aidan Smith
Any sober outlook at the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats offense has to prepare for a full campaign without the leader, Clayton Thorson. I hope, more than anything, that Thorson has a speedy recovery, and all the talk of his replacement is for naught when he takes the field in West Lafayette on August 30. But to assume that to be the case, is a recipe for disaster.
There could be no greater compliment to the program Fitzgerald has built, than to lose both Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson, and somehow not skip a beat. Coming off a 10-win season, and with a home schedule full of heavyweights like Michigan, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Notre Dame, there will be no under the radar 8-game winning streaks like they ended 2017 on. The lights will be bright in 2018, and the Cats have an offseason to prepare for it. It will be a season with a target on their back, and neither of their 2015-2017 offensive leaders there to save the day.
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.
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: