Pat Fitzgerald, Mick McCall and the entire Northwestern Wildcats team has faced criticism the last week. Even after an overtime win over Iowa. Not that they care — being in their football bubble. Media criticism is not likely to penetrate.
Fans, at least, spent the whole week dissecting this Northwestern team and wondering just how they could get better. The famous scapegoat of offensive coordinator Mick McCall was in the crosshairs. Fitzgerald took criticism for his decision to sit on the ball heading into a steep wind in a tie game with 80 seconds to play.
Really these criticisms were bubbling throughout the entire season. Northwestern was not going to achieve its goal of competing for a Big Ten West title (in all likelihood) and the team was going to beat some lesser and equal opponents to preserve a bowl game, a solid record and likely no change the team desperately needed.
The team’s general security has created a perception among fans, at least, that Northwestern is satisfied with where it is at as a program and unwilling to take a risk to make itself better. It has also created a perception that despite getting recruiting honors and talented players in the last several years, the team is struggling to develop players, particularly on offense.
In general, if there is a criticism of Northwestern that has simmered for several years it is the team has lost much of its offensive character. Every year follows the same pattern and the team ultimately disappoints as it tries to figure out who it wants to be or tries to be something it is not. The team rarely plays like the plucky underdog anymore, cracking out that feat of desperation only when they are desperate.
Those concerns will not go away after this season — a year where Northwestern had veteran leaders and Big Ten West dreams. The way the Wildcats have played since their losses to the Badgers and Nittany Lions suggest this expectation was not unfounded. The disappointment of defeat just came all at once. And Northwestern needed time to come into its own.
But Northwestern has come into its own. Facing continued adversity and a loaded defense preparing to face Justin Jackson and the run game, Clayton Thorson displayed the patience Northwestern has waited for all year. He rarely forced any throws. And his offensive line rarely put him in position to scramble or run for his life. When they did, he read it perfectly.
The Wildcats’ game-winning touchdown exemplified this. As Michigan State brought star linebacker Joe Bachie, Northwestern’s offensive line held firm. Justin Jackson read the play perfectly and picked up the blitz, allowing Thorson to sling the ball to Flynn Nagel. He beat his man down the sideline, holding off his arm tackles before diving into the end zone.
The Wildcats converted the two-point conversion and held firm for a 39-31 triple-overtime win over No. 16 Michigan State.
The game-clinching play as Joe Gaziano forced a fumble from Brian Lewerke. Lewerke picked it up, scrambled out of the pocket and threw it into double coverage. Nate Hall met the ball in the end zone and wrestled it away to seal the victory.
Here was the fast-slinging Northwestern offense with defensive bravado the team had been looking for. It may have come too late for Big Ten title dreams, but this is a fun team. Almost exactly who everyone thought they could be.
The coaching staff may have to answer those questions about why, for the second straight year no less, it took a few weeks for this team to find its rhythm. But there is no doubt Northwestern put on quite a number against Michigan State.
After giving up a ton of yards on the first two possessions, Northwestern buckled down. A red zone turnover and a pair of missed field goals helped energize the defense. And push the offense a bit further.
At what point in the last few years would Northwestern even attempt a halfback pass? There was Justin Jackson taking a toss and rearing up to throw, finding Bennet Skowronek for a 17-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
With Michigan State loading up against Jackson (41 yards, 17 carries), who would have thought Clayton Thorson would have the patience to make the Spartans pay? Thorson threw for 356 yards on 33-for-48 passing and two touchdowns. He kept taking what the defense gave him and threw it underneath where Flynn Nagel and Cameron Green made work running the crossing routes.
The defense did its job too. Just like it has for much of the last three years.
Lewerke threw for a Michigan State record 445 yards on 39-for-57 passing. Like Northwestern, Michigan State quickly abandoned the run. And the Wildcats’ secondary looked weak as it has all year. But the team still did not break. Northwestern forced a turnover in the red zone and then held steady the rest of the game. The offense did its job too, at least flipping field position to give Michigan State a long field.
Even though the Spartans drove 86 yards for the game-tying touchdown with 25 seconds left, Northwestern kept its confidence. A quick strike to start overtime showed Michigan State that Northwestern was not going to back down. And in the second overtime, Northwestern’s offense picked up its tired defense. Justin Jackson capped off the drive with his lone touchdown run. And the Wildcats offense kept things going from there to win it in the third overtime.
This season has not turned out the way Northwestern ultimately wanted to. There is likely no trip to Indianapolis upcoming.
But the team has developed into the team it always thought it would be. Hard-charging defensively, dynamic and disciplined offensively. The Wildcats are starting to get their weapons on both sides of the ball in space to make big plays. And they are making those big plays. If there is a big blob of good, not great teams in the middle of the Big Ten after the Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin group, Northwestern is near the front of that pack.
Will that settle anyone on those big questions about the program? Likely not. Results matter at some point. And fans are restless to avoid 6-6, 7-5 and another mid-tier bowl game. At some point, everyone wants to be in a Big Ten title race.
But Northwestern has finally discovered its identity. The team has found a formula that works and is burning off impressive wins. The Wildcats are a team to be reckoned with. Whatever that might ultimately be worth.
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.
WATCH: Northwestern unveils inside look at Welsh-Ryan Arena
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.
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.