Northwestern was a study in how not to play offense during the 2015 season, yet the horrific stats and lack of point production didn’t hurt much as the team still won 10 games. With some of the parts changing on both sides of the ball, the hope has to be for more balance.
Can the changes on offense help make that happen? With a schedule featuring games against Michigan State and Ohio State as two of the three cross-over games, Northwestern is going to have to find some balance or find themselves in deeper trouble than they did last season.
Let’s take a look at what this offense looks like and if it could give the balance needed for the 2016 season.
One thing is clear for the 2016 season at Northwestern — sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson has to show he can complete passes down the field or this team is in deep trouble.
Some will argue that the coaching staff had the handcuffs on Thorson, hoping to simplify the offense and limit the potential for mistakes last season, and that may well be true. But, if that was the case then this team is in some serious trouble, because Thorson couldn’t even handle the basics effectively last season.
He finished the year completing barely 50 percent of his passes and threw for more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (7). As a result the offense ranked 124th nationally in offensive efficiency.
The good news is that it seems the handcuffs are off and Thorson has become more than a glorified running back with an ability to throw the football at times. If the improvement that coaches say has happened in practice translates to on the field production, look for Northwestern to improve dramatically on the stat sheet.
Should Thorson not make it through the season healthy or is continually ineffective, look for the keys to the offense to be turned over to junior Matt Alviti, whom Thorson beat out for the starting job last season.
Just how far has Northwestern gone in closing the talent gap on the rest of the Big Ten? Try having arguably the best running back in the conference at your disposal.
The Wildcats will have Justin Jackson back for a third season, and the good news is that there really wasn’t a sophomore slump last year. Jackson rushed for 1,418 yards and leads all returning running backs in yards and yards per game heading in to the 2016 season.
However, Jackson and the offense as whole had issues putting the ball in the end zone, as he put up just five rushing touchdowns on the season. Expect that to change this year, with more balance up front and hopefully an expanded passing game to keep defenses honest.
What will be interesting if if this team can stop relying so heavily on Jackson, who averaged 24 carries a game last season. More is needed from senior backup Warren Long, while there is an intriguing sophomore named Auston Anderson to help provide depth.
The staff likes the depth at running back so much that Solomon Vault is moving to wide receiver this season.
While a lot of people focus on the bad numbers from Thorson at quarterback last season, a closer look suggests he didn’t get a whole lot of help from the wide receiver group in 2015 either. The good news is that this group has been cleaned out due to graduation and has some big parts returning after missing action last year.
The name most will be watching is junior Marcus McShepard, as he transitions from the defensive backfield to the offensive side of the ball. His speed and size is something intriguing to the coaching staff and may be the answer to the badly needed deep threat on offense.
Also making a switch to help increase the athleticism of this offense is former running back Solomon Vault, who fits in well as the expected slot receiver. There’s also the returning Flynn Nagel, who missed almost all of last season and could form a dangerous 1-2 punch with Vault if they can get on the field at the same time.
Senior Austin Carr leads all returning receivers, but had just 16 catches for 302 yards and two touchdowns last season and will need to show way more this season to retain that lead.
The worry comes at the “Superback” position, with veteran Dan Vitale graduated and leaving a big hole to fill. Junior Garrett Dickerson has been an intriguing athlete at the position and it could be his time to shine.
If there isn’t a position of worry for the Wildcats, it has to be the offensive line. Four returning starters will do that for you. With a rushing attack that saw Justin Jackson nearly reach the pinnacle of the Big Ten rushing stats last season it is clear that run blocking is this group’s strength.
However, this group didn’t impress greatly at pass protection, and the inconsistency there led to NU ranking 11th in the Big Ten with 29 sacks given up. The hope is that the experience gained last season by a group that has six players returning with starts translates to improved production.
Leading the way for this group is right tackle Eric Olson, who has 22 career starts to lead all returning players. Joining him on the right side of the line is likely senior Ian Park, who split time as a starter last season with Shane Mertz, but appears to have won the job outright in the offseason.
Sophomore Blake Hance will anchor the backside of the line at left tackle after making eight starts along the line last season. Next to him will be senior Connor Mahoney, who made six starts last year.
Center will be occupied by junior Brad North, who made five starts last season and could be the best offensive lineman the Wildcats have. If a change is going to happen with the stats for this group, look for a healthy North to be the catalyst for that change up front.
Our Projected Depth Chart:
WR: Marcus McShepard, Jr.
WR: Austin Carr, Sr.
WR: Solomon Vault, Jr.
SB: Garrett Dickerson, Jr.
LT: Blake Hanse, So.
LG: Connor Mahoney, Sr.
C: Brad North, Jr.
RG: Ian Park, Sr.
RT: Eric Olson, Sr.
RB: Justin Jackson, Jr.
QB: Clayton Thorson, So.
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.