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Northwestern Wildcats face expectations, knowing nothing is given

The Northwestern Wildcats have faced expectations following a bowl win before and floundered. The team is hoping to change its approach and make good on them.

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Trevor Siemian and Kain Colter had just led the Northwestern Wildcats to their first bowl win since the 1940s. The stuffing from a monkey plush toy still was strewn across the locker room at EverBank Field. It felt like a turning point for the program.

Northwestern had broken through for that bowl victory. They had gotten that monkey off their back. And so many key stars were returning — quarterbacks Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian, superback Dan Vitale and a slew of strong defenders. The Wildcats started the following year ranked and eventually they hosted College GameDay for the first time since 1995 against Ohio State.

Northwestern had the lead in the fourth quarter of that game. As Carlos Hyde rumbled through a tired defensive line to give Ohio State the win — eventually by 10 points thanks to a late scoop and score that made gamblers in Vegas happy (or sad). But it felt like a program-changing day for Northwestern.

It was not. The Wildcats, suffering from injuries and perhaps some distraction from the ongoing union battle brewing that season, lost the next six games. They never righted the ship and finished the year 5-7. They missed a bowl game. And then missed a bowl game the following season.

The Wildcats did not turn that corner.

There was something of that similar feeling as players made confetti angels on the field at Yankee Stadium and celebrated another bowl championship. The team was losing some key senior players, but many of the key players to that bowl victory were returning.

Clayton Thorson and Justin Jackson, two key players in the upset win over Pitt, would be back. The team returned several defensive standouts like Godwin Igwebuike. The schedule in 2017 does not include powerhouses Ohio State or Michigan (although defending Big Ten champion Penn State will make a trip to Evanston).

The stars seem to be aligning again for a special Northwestern season. At least, that is what everyone else thinks. The preseason predictions have Northwestern as a dark horse to win the Big Ten West — that game at Wisconsin looms large early in the season — and there are some ready to pull the trigger. Not many, but some.

As Northwestern opens up its training camp Monday, those thoughts about December are far away from the team’s mind. But not too far. It is still part of the conversation as the season begins.

Pat Fitzgerald has long held the mantra that his team needs to go 1-0 every week. He is not someone to look too far ahead.

Still, it must be hard to shut out the noise. Especially with those memories of 2013 and the struggles the team took after that supposed breakthrough.

This might be where the team’s struggles last year might play an instructive role.

Northwestern had high expectations last year too after a surprising 10-win season. But the Wildcats struggled out of the gates. They fell to Western Michigan at home in the opener — with Clayton Thorson fumbling the go-ahead touchdown through the end zone for a touchback — and then embarrassingly lost to Illinois State 9-7 on a banked-in field goal as time expired.

Fitzgerald said at the Big Ten Media Days he lamented the team’s poor start, admitting the team was not as prepared as he would have liked for those early games.

That is easy to say in hindsight. And true to form, Fitzgerald has kept the focus on Nevada in his media sessions rather than talking about the Big Ten as a whole.

Northwestern players seem to have taken that lesson to heart too.

“We didn’t come into every single game prepared like we wanted to,” Justin Jackson told Tristan Jung of Inside NU. “I think it came down to us as leaders, kind of failing our team. I think especially early on into the season we were looking ahead too much.”

Northwestern was able to right the ship after that 0-2 start. The Wildcats finished 6-6 and reached the Pinstripe Bowl. Their victory there seemed to validate their preseason predictions and expectations. They just dropped the ball early in the year to have their own special season.

The lessons of 2013 and the lessons of 2016 will certainly remain for Northwestern. Clayton Thorson, Godwin Igwebuike and Justin Jackson, the new leaders on this team, know what went wrong last season and why the team was unable to match that 10-win breakthrough.

Northwestern is still working to build some program consistency. The last four seasons since that Gator Bowl win have shown how delicate the program still is.

The Wildcats, as much as anything, need to meet expectations this year — an eight- or nine-win season and realistically staying in the Big Ten conversation — just to prove they can match a good season with another good season. That when these opportunities with senior leadership at skill positions come around they can take advantage of the opportunities.

That Wisconsin game on Sept. 30 looms. That game — and the following week against Penn State — may determine whether Northwestern seriously can compete for a Big Ten West title. It is hard not to look forward to those two weeks.

The Wildcats know they can still create a special season and achieves some bowl glory if they focus in on winning those first three games — vs. Nevada, at Duke and vs. Bowling Green. All three of those games will present their own challenges. Then comes the Big Ten gauntlet.

Nothing for the Wildcats is every promised or guaranteed. This is still a program seeking consistency. And consistency in winning.

Fitzgerald and the program know the expectations around them this year. Northwestern is not hiding from them at all. The team knows to meet them, it has to take care of its business each week. More than any year, Northwestern needs that 1-0 mantra.

This is a season where everyone believes Northwestern can do something special. The question is whether the team will rise to that challenge.

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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Widcats Basketball

WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena

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After a year spent at the strange confines of Allstate Arena out in Rosemont, the Northwestern Wildcats basketball teams will return home to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the 2018-19 season. 

On Friday, the Wildcats released a video look at what the new-look arena actually looks like ahead of the opener. 

Take a look at this state-of-the-art arena built around the old school appearance on the outside. 

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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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