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The Northwestern Wildcats talked a big game entering the season, even with some glaring holes. The hope was it could use the non-conference season to tide over some of those holes. The hope was they would still pick up wins and at least make progress.

It was not like Northwestern’s non-conference schedule was difficult this year. Nevada was one of the worst teams in the nation last year and was working in a new coach. Bowling Green, next week’s opponent, is not much better than Nevada last year. Duke was the wild card, a four-win team with a good coaching staff.

It was the game at Durham that would be the only truly strong test for Northwestern ahead of the Big Ten opener at Wisconsin. This was the biggest test for the team.

And after watching Saturday’s game, it is hard not to be a bit concerned with how the Wildcats played. The Blue Devils dominated in a 41-17 win at Wallace Wade Stadium. Northwestern failed its first big test — and not even the biggest one they will face early in the season.

The Blue Devils outgained the Wildcats 538-191. Justin Jackson was held to less than 100 yards — both by Duke’s defense and Northwestern’s coaching. Clayton Thorson went from poised star quarterback to unsure and rushing his throws. The depleted secondary was exposed and the defense tired out by the offense’s inability to move the ball.

Everything that seemingly could go wrong for the Wildcats went wrong in Saturday’s game. There was hardly anything positive to take out of it — aside from Matt Alviti finally getting the offense going on a final garbage-time drive.

It would be easy to say Northwestern should go back to the drawing board. But it feels after two weeks and seeing some of the same problems show up — particularly on the offensive line — the team needs to hit a hard reset and rediscover its identity — or how to create that identity again.

It is still early in the season. Northwestern is likely not as bad as it played Saturday at Duke. Nor is it probably as good as the team played in the second half against Nevada. There is a happy medium. And the Wildcats’ best play is likely still ahead of them.

But the games start counting in three weeks. And there is just one game left to start pointing in the right direction.

Here are some things to watch for after Saturday’s game.

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Justin Jackson has no room

Justin Jackson, last year’s Big Ten leading rusher, is the best player on the team. He still has an uncanny ability to turn nothing plays into short gains and he is the kind of player who gets stronger as the game goes on. There is no universe where Jackson should not be heavily involved in the team’s offense.

That is what happened Saturday. Jackson rushed for 18 yards on seven carries. Seven carries! That is the fewest rushing attempts in a game for Jackson in his career. He had eight carries in his freshman debut against Cal.

The only common thread between all these games where Jackson does not get carries is Northwestern loses. In Northwestern’s efforts to lighten Jackson’s load, they sometimes go too far — think last year’s disappointing 9-7 loss to Illinois State where Jackson had just 12 carries.

This was not all Jackson’s fault. Jackson could find little room to run against the offensive line and Duke again loaded up the box. The Blue Devils’ blitz schemes often confused the Wildcats’ offensive line and left Jackson with nowhere to go.

Quickly, NU abandoned the run game and turned to Clayton Thorson exclusively. And this was even when the game was still in the balance. Northwestern cut the deficit to 21-10 by halftime. A comeback was not impossible.

Yet, Jackson had just one carry in the second half.

The offensive line is a huge problem. There is no denying it at this point. This was two straight games. The Wildcats tried to line up the middle and send Jackson into the middle of the horde of the defensive front.

If Northwestern is going to come close to accomplishing any of its goals this year, the team has to find a way to make Jackson an effective runner. Getting him into space on the perimeter, running counters or getting him passes in the flat, worked in the last two weeks. Northwestern has to find a way to get him the ball more.

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Depth Issues Again in the Secondary

Northwestern’s defense stood as tall as it could for much of the game. Eventually, it just broke down — showing all the telltale signs of fatigue like arm tackling, missed tackles and poor gap control. Duke’s dominance on offense was as much about Daniel Jones’ stellar play as it was the offensive line beating up on a tired team.

It was 21-10 entering the second half and Northwestern trailed 24-10 before a Clayton Thorson interception let the flood gates open. The Wildcats could not stop the bleeding because their offense could not stay on the field.

That is when NU’s depth issues were exposed especially in the secondary.

The Wildcats were already thin entering the game at cornerback with Brian Bullock and Marcus McShephard out with injury. Starting safety Kyle Queiro started at cornerback opposite Montrage Hartage. Northwestern was scrambling to make things work.

Then came the dubious targeting call on Jared McGee in the first half, further thinning out the Wildcats’ secondary.

Duke took full advantage. Jones threw for 305 yards, taking full advantage of the team’s inexperience. Northwestern did not help matters by getting a poor pass rush — what little success the team had in the second quarter came largely because the team built some pressure — but the team’s lack of depth was again exposed.

Every team probably has a position group they cannot afford to have injuries hit hard. That is the secondary for Northwestern, supposedly the team’s strongest defensive unit.

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About that offensive line…

The offensive line continues to be a big story for Northwestern. And it goes far beyond the failure to get Justin Jackson going.

Clayton Thorson faced constant pressure and was sacked four times. Thorson’s inaccuracy did not help, but he was also fairly inaccurate because he was evading pressure constantly. Thorson’s poor habits — holding onto the ball too long, trying to squeeze the ball into tight windows and letting the ball sail — were all exacerbated by the offensive line’s poor play.

This is becoming a broken record. But Duke brought blitzes again and again and blew up plays before they could even start. The offensive line never adjusted or made the communication to pick it up.

Some of that falls on Thorson. As a three-year starter, he should be able to recognize these packages and make adjustments at the line. In this sense, he will need to step up. And Northwestern’s game plan likely has to change to account for this unit’s struggles so far.

Northwestern seemed unwilling to change much of its game plan after struggling along the line in the first game. This is two straight games where the offensive line failed to get much of a push and put their quarterback under pressure.

That is a trend that needs reversing.

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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