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The Northwestern Wildcats were rolling on the ground against the Kentucky Wildcats, using a long Jeremy Larkin run to get all the way down inside the 20-yard line. NU pounded Kentucky on the ground over and over and over again. There was no stopping them.

Except for Northwestern. It was a bowl game so some fun playcalling was always in the cards, but this seemed too much. Not with the game on the line and a victory uncertain.

So at the two-yard line Northwestern ran an end-around pass for a wide receiver, their second non-quarterback throwing play of the game. It of course failed. A Kyle Queiro pick-six seemed to save things and give the Wildcats a comfortable 10-point lead in the fourth quarter.

But things are never easy. And facing 4th and 1 at the 40-yard line with two and a half minutes left, Northwestern bafflingly went for it again. It was not that it was bad to be super aggressive, but the quarterback sneak was short again. The team did not give it to its best player — Justin Jackson, he of the 10th most rushing yards in NCAA history and 157 yards in this game alone.

Kentucky passed its way into the end zone behind senior quarterback Stephen Johnson, fighting off his own injuries and a relentless Northwestern pass rush. The team was one point away from tying the game.

The Wildcats defense stood tall, deflecting the pass away on the two-point conversion. And in a crazy game that saw Bennie Snell ejected for Kentucky on a controversial decision when he made contact with an official and Paddy Fisher ejected for a questionable targeting call, Northwestern prevailed 24-23 to secure a 10-win season and a second straight bowl win.

How the Wildcats got there was not clean. It was an ugly game made uglier by Clayton Thorson’s knee injury in the second quarter. And then it was made even uglier with the coaching staff’s questionable decisions late with the game still on the line. Northwestern did not need to leave this game as close as it was.

But let the record show, Northwestern won. And that bowl games do not have the meaning we might all give them.

Still some things to take away:

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The Good

Justin Jackson is the GOAT

There is not much more to say about Justin Jackson (the ball carrier) that has not been written by me at Lake The Posts, Wildcat Digest, Talking 10 or anywhere else. The guy was the picture of everything great about Northwestern and one of the best college running backs of all time. Quite possibly, he was on of the most underappreciated backs nationally, just quietly doing his work.

In all, Jackson will finish 10th overall in yards in NCAA FBS history. He will finish his career with two bowl wins and two 10-win seasons. He will have two bowl game MVP trophies in his trophy case. That is something no one in Northwestern history can say ever.

His whole career was unprecedented and he went out with a flourish. Jackson rushed for 157 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries. He took up a larger load with Clayton Thorson leaving the game with a serious-looking knee injury. And he did it without complaint and with a smile on his face, planting his foot and cutting upfield.

It would have been nicer if the Wildcats put the ball in his hands to close it out — twice — but that is not how things go in a bowl game. Jackson probably did not complain either way.

Jackson deserves a standing ovation. This program will miss him.

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Front seven stepped up

Pat Fitzgerald put a lot of faith in his defense throughout the game, particularly in the fourth quarter with the play calling he made for the offense. It is easy to be fun with the offense, it is harder to be fun with the defense. They just have to get down and do their jobs.

And the Wildcats were already a bit shorthanded with Nate Hall a late scratch for the game and Paddy Fisher ejected on a targeting call late in the first half.

But the front seven, a group that had so many questions marks early in the season, stepped up time and time again. Joe Gaziano was a bull off the edge, getting after the quarterback. Senior Tyler Lancaster and Jordan Thompson plugged up the inside. Even senior linebacker Warren Long, making his first career start, made some fantastic plays in the backfield.

This unit stepped up in a big way throughout the win streak and turned into a dominant defensive force against the run. There are some losses along that front seven heading into next year, but Northwestern continues to establish a reputation for building a dominant defense.

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Seniors making their mark

Justin Jackson and Tyler Lancaster obviously made their mark. But special consideration should go to some other seniors who unexpectedly made their mark.

Warren Long got his first start at linebacker after Nate Hall was a late scratch. Hall was one of Northwestern’s best overall defenders all season and a big-time playmaker. But Long was all over the field and made some big plays, including his first career sack in the fourth quarter.

Matt Alviti also stepped in. The former four-star high school prospect stepped in after Clayton Thorson’s injury and put in solid work. The Wildcats avoided passing the ball, but Alviti made good passes at several key moments. He was also a threat on the ground and a quick attacker. He finished with 50 yards on 4-for-11 passing and 54 yards on the ground on nine carries.

The Bad

The Playcalling

Playcalling has been a huge question mark for Northwestern for several years. The amount of fan frustration with the way Mick McCall calls plays are often puzzling. And they sometimes do not seem to take advantage of the players on Northwestern. Even in Friday’s game, it seemed like the team was going too away from Jackson too much.

But the play call decisions in the fourth quarter are all on the head coach. He has the final OK on these decisions. And even if they work, no one is likely to call him a genius (as Pat Fitzgerald might defend himself).

It is fair to say that this is a bowl game — and not a particularly big one — so the point of having fun is fine. Teams take more risks in bowl games. That is fine. There was not even a huge issue going for it on fourth down at midfield with 2.5 minutes left. The issue was not giving it to Justin Jackson.

And the wide receiver pass on the goal line? Sure the team installed that play and why not try it. But a touchdown there likely puts the game away — the team was lucky to get the pick-six from Kyle Queiro. It was just unnecessary stress. And it is hard to argue to your fans and to the team that the point of the game was to win it with absurd play calls like that.

Anyways, the Wildcats already hit on a trick play with Jeremy Larkins’ 24-yard pass to Clayton Thorson to set up Northwestern’s second score.

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The secondary

The secondary was a problem all season long. They would have their moments and be opportunistic, but they also gave up a ton of yards. Kentucky figured to be a team that the team could contain with the relatively weak passing game from Stephen Johnson.

That was not the case. Johnson carved up Northwestern from the first drive of the game, making a couple of dangerous throws that fell perfectly into receiver’s hands. And he led the Wildcats down the field easily to score the potential go-ahead score.

He finished with 257 yards on 19-for-36 passing. And he got himself going to lead the comeback that feel just a two-point conversion short of completion.

This was a veteran secondary too. It will lose Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro next year. That does not bode well for the team. And it will have new leadership with Jerry Brown stepping down after 25 years.

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The officiating

Pac-12 referees have a bad reputation and they proved why it was deserved.

There were a ton of questionable calls and the first half was spent talking about the officiating decisions that had a clear effect on the game. That is never a good sign.

It started with star Kentucky running back Bennie Snell Jr. getting ejected for allegedly making contact with an official. The referee had extended his hand to help Snell up, he refused it and then appeared to shove the official. But the flag did not immediately come out. Maybe he said something afterward. Either way, Kentucky’s best player was out of the game before it really got going.

Then at the end of the first quarter, Paddy Fisher laid a hit on a receiver that appeared clean. Hard, but clean, with contact to the chest. It seemed pretty innocuous. Even the broadcasters were surprised to learn it was reviewed for targeting.

And they were incredulous when Fisher was ejected. Northwestern was then without its top defender for the rest of the game.

Who knows what either of these questionable decisions had on either the quality or outcome of the game. Both coaches were left frustrated with the officiating. And it is never a good thing to have to point out officiating in either direction.

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What this means for 2018

Clayton Thorson’s injury

Clayton Thorson went down in the second quarter holding his knee after making a catch on a 24-yard trick play. It was a brilliant play call (see a compliment for the coaches!) and it was executed perfectly, helping shift momentum to give Northwestern a lead. But Thorson’s injury sucked all the air out of the room essentially.

Concern immediately went to Thorson’s future. And the injury seemed pretty serious, even though Thorson crutched back out to the field to be with his teammates in the second half.

There was no official diagnosis during the game. But it seems serious enough that he could miss the beginning of next season. That would be a major loss.

Northwestern turned to senior Matt Alviti as the team’s backup quarterback. But with him running, everyone began asking, who is the third-string quarterback? And that is a really good question.

At this point, it seems very likely true freshman Jason Whittaker could be in the mix to start next year if Thorson is out to start his senior year.

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Jeremy Larkin is coming . . .

Justin Jackson said after the game coach Pat Fitzgerald told him he needed to get all the yards he could in Friday’s bowl game because the freshman behind him might be coming for some of his records. And it is hard to argue that. Northwestern’s backfield is in good hands with Jeremy Larkin.

Larkin finished with 112 yards on nine carries, including a 64-yard run. All year, Larkin put in solid numbers all year long too. He showed a lot more burst too as he was able to get huge chunks of yards.

He finished the season with 503 yards on 84 carries. That load will increase a lot next year as he becomes the featured back.

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Expectations will not change

Northwestern will bring back a lot of the key players from this tea. And while the team may not have the right pieces to make a serious challenge for the Big Ten West title, another bowl win and another 10-win season are going to keep expectations high around Evanston.

The Wildcat shave reached this comfortable level where they are able to put together some very nice seasons like this one. But they ultimately do not come with meaningful late-season games. The Wildcats are never a serious threat to win the division.

Both 10-win seasons the last three years did not come with the attendant trip to Indianapolis. And that has to eat at the team and the program. This is their next step. And the one that continues to elude them.

Next year’s schedule is much more difficult overall. A 10-win season will be tough to accomplish. But with the returning talent, the goal should still remain the same. And the fact the team did not accomplish that Big Ten division goal should eat at the team throughout the offseason.

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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Buckeyes Football

2018 Big Ten Championship Game Preview: 5 Things to Know

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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. 

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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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