Few would see the 2015 Northwestern Wildcats season as a failure, and winning 10 games surely is a great season. However, it felt like this team simply should’ve had more to say when it came to the Big Ten Wet division title race.
Instead, the Wildcats were once again the bridesmaid and not the bride. But, why are we talking about last season when we are previewing the 2016 season here?
You can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been. Lessons learned from the 2015 season will be vital to a team chalk full of returning talent, and no one is going to sleep on the Wildcats in 2016.
So, what did we all learn about the Wildcats in 2015 that will be important in 2016? Let’s check out the good, bad and ugly from last season before we go ahead to this upcoming year.
Starting off the season against Stanford, not much was expected from a Wildcats team breaking in a redshirt freshman at quarterback and playing against one of the Pac-12’s best programs. What ensued may have been the biggest upset amongst Power 5 opponents in the entire 2015 season.
Stanford came in as a 10-point favorite even with this game taking place in Evanston and it stunned even our staff of predictors (however, I had this one a close contest). Instead of Stanford’s defense ruling the day, it was actually Northwestern doing that. The Wildcats held Stanford to just 85 yards rushing and just 3-of-15 on third down conversions en route to a 16-6 victory.
Most impressive? Holding Kevin Hogan to just 155 yards passing and one interception, while also holding future Heisman Trophy finalist Christian McCaffrey to just 66 yards on the ground that day.
It was a harbinger of things to come for the Wildcats, who won 10 games and went 6-2 in Big Ten play.
As great of a win as the opener was against Stanford, it felt a lot like the same old Northwestern the rest of the season. The Wildcats played four other ranked opponents and went just 1-3 in those four games, with only a 13-7 win over Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium saving them from all losses against ranked Big Ten opponents.
Northwestern got blown out bad against both Michigan and Iowa, losing by a grand total of 78-10 over those two games. This team then got crushed by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl and proved it just didn’t have the offense to hang with the best teams in the country.
Things got so bad that Northwestern never mustered up more than 13 points against any ranked opponent not named Stanford on the season. After such a hopeful start against a tough ranked opponent, Northwestern proved once again it was just a notch below the best in the nation.
It is hard to hide the fact that Northwestern was one of the ugliest offenses in the nation, let alone the Big Ten in 2015.
Quarterback Clayton Thorson provided some hope, but only in the run game because he was utterly useless as a passer in 2015. How bad was Thorson in the passing game? He finished the year completing just 50.8 percent of his passes for 1,522 yards with seven touchdowns to nine interceptions.
Simply put, he wasn’t fully ready as a passer but there weren’t any better options as an overall quarterback on this roster.
It all added up to an offense that was dead last in the Big Ten and 114th nationally in scoring offense (19.5 points per game). Additionally, the passing game mustered up just 138.5 yards per game — ranking dead last in the Big Ten and 120th nationally.
About the only saving grace was the running game, which was fourth in the Big Ten with 188.5 yards per game. Thorson would finish second on the team with 397 yards on the ground for the season.
What It Means for 2016
This past season showed a lot of the good and a whole lot of the bad for the Northwestern Wildcats, but the 2016 version of this team is going to need a lot more from its offense if it is to get back to a 10-win season.
With a lot of the defensive talent gone and teams keying on players like Anthony Walker on defense and Justin Jackson on offense, much more is going to be needed out of Thorson as a passer this upcoming season.
That was the biggest lesson the 2015 season taught observers and the coaching staff alike. The good news is that Thorson worked hard on his passing game and it also seems things are settling down in terms of injuries to his wide receivers. If that progression continues in to actual games on Saturday’s this fall then it could mean the Wildcats as one of the contenders in the Big Ten West division.