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The Northwestern Wildcats have high hopes for the upcoming season. Even the BTN broadcasters were claiming this might very well be the best team in the Pat Fitzgerald era.

To be sure, the Wildcats are talking a big game. They believe they can take those steps to compete for a championship this year. But it all has to start with a single step. Or a single win. A 1-0, if you will.

Not that it was easy. Northwestern had its shaky moments in a 31-20 season-opening win over the Nevada Wolf Pack at Ryan Field on Saturday. The Wildcats trailed 17-7 at halftime and needed to get their ship in order to come from behind and win.

Northwestern scored the go-ahead touchdown with 5:28 to play on fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak from the one-yard line. Northwestern added another score with less than a minute left.

It was an ugly game, for sure. Northwestern made a lot of mistakes, fumbling the ball in the red zone on a catch to Bennet Skowronek, Charlie Kuhbander missing a 21-yard field goal and Clayton Thorson threw an interception backed up against his own end zone. That does not even get into the penalties that harmed the team.

These were all things the team could clean up and recover from. The defense largely did after giving up 231 yards in the first half. The team recovered and got itself back off the mat and into the game. The usual self doubt that Northwestern fans feel never went away until the team took the lead. That is normal, especially following last year’s start.

But the team recovered and went 1-0. The Wildcats got that win. And had plenty to be happy about.

There is still plenty for the team to get concerned about. As the Wildcats prepare for a difficult challenge at Duke this weekend, here are some takeaways from Northwestern’s Week One win.

Clayton Thorson is the real deal

One of the big questions for Northwestern entering the season was just how much could the team trust junior quarterback Clayton Thorson. Last year, he seemed to expand his game but it was hard to say how much of that would carry over. He seemed to put in all the work.

And there was the little question about who he would throw to after Austin Carr’s graduation and Solomon Vault’s injury.

Thorson seemed to answer all of those questions in the affirmative Saturday. He threw for 352 yards, completing 28 of 38 passes. He found Macan Wilson and Riley Lees for touchdown passes. He distributed the ball to Justin Jackson out of the backfield and Garrett Dickerson in the slot. He hit Bennet Skowronek for eight catches and 123 yards.

It was a dominant performance from Thorson with few mistakes. He was precise and in control all game long. Thorson had great command in the pocket and made all the throws he needed. His only flaw was occasionally letting the ball sail when he could not set his feet.

But it was a positive sign for Thorson. And hopefully something he can sustain.

Those lines? Yeah…

The big concern for Northwestern was the team’s offensive line. It was a group that struggled throughout last season, giving up the most sacks in the nation. Pat Fitzgerald left almost every position open to competition hoping to find some answer. The Wildcats had two freshmen playing at right tackle — Gunnar Vogel and Rashawn Slater. And there was little answer to any of the concerns.

Justin Jackson rushed 30 times for 109 yards. That sounds like a good game, but comes out to just 3.6 yards per carry. And too often the Wildcats tried to run Jackson through the middle of the line and Jackson found no room to run. His most successful runs came to the outside.

Thorson also faced some pressure, although he looked much improved getting rid of the ball quickly.

But it was clear the offensive line still needed a ton of work. There were multiple instances where a miscommunication in the zone blocking scheme allowed a defender to come unfettered into the backfield. The Wildcats have a lot of work to do to clean this up.

It is just one game. And the first game can be a learning experience. But the Wildcats will have to do better.

The same could be said for the defensive line. Ty Gangi had a lot of time to throw, facing little pressure. Northwestern failed to get a sack and had only three tackles for a loss. Northwestern did not spend much time in the Nevada backfield.

Maybe some of that is Northwestern’s vanilla gameplan. The Wildcats did not blitz very much, opting to hold some schemes back for Big Ten play. That is typical for the Wildcats.

Still, it did not seem like either line got a significant push. The Wolf Pack had plenty of time to let the ball air out and still picked up 142 rushing yards (just 14 fewer than the Wildcats).

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Testing their depth

The biggest and most concerning storyline coming out of the game Saturday is just how much the Wildcats’ depth is getting tested. The strong Sky Team saw at least two players go down and officially lost another key player. Losing three players are going to deplete any unit.

The bad news started before the game when Pat Fitzgerald announced Keith Watkins III would miss the entire season with a lower body injury. He was ruled out for the game in the injury report released Thursday, but the injury is obviously quite serious. Watkins missed all of last season too.

Then in the second half, cornerback Marcus McShephard landed awkwardly and left the game. Not too far after that, his backup went down and Northwestern had to throw Moe Almasri into the game. It is OK if you do not know who the walk-on graduate student is.

The Wildcats have to hope McShephard, who struggled some in the game, will be ready to go and that Montre Hartage also will be healthy. Like so much on defense, it felt like Northwestern was keeping some of their cards close to the vest.

But the Wildcats cannot scheme around a lack of depth. Or injuries.

The Wildcats strong secondary has taken a few hits in the first week. And with so many other questions remaining on defense, this has to be a concern.

Northwestern may have won Week One. But the team everyone thought could compete for a Big Ten West title has some very fundamental questions to answer.

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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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