The Northwestern Wildcats are not a team that usually worries about players leaving early for the NFL. They are a team that often does not get the freshman recruits who can contribute early. Pat Fitzgerald’s preference has always been to redshirt players and give them a “gap year,” so to speak, to get up to speed and contribute more immediately.
That has changed. The long line of “best recruiting classes in Northwestern history” eventually would mean some freshman would come ready to play. And redshirts would go burned in the first games of the season. It was never a hard and fast rule to redshirt freshmen, if they were ready to play, they would play.
Then came Saturday. A mixture of injuries, lack of depth and deserved play put more freshman than ever on the field. By most estimates, Northwestern had the most freshman in the Pat Fitgerald era make their debuts in the season opener. Nine true freshmen played Saturday against Nevada.
And most of those are on the two-deep this week as Northwestern heads to Durham to take on Duke.
The big starter is freshman tackle Rashawn Slater. Slater rotated at right tackle with Gunnar Vogel throughout Saturday’s win against Nevada. It seems Northwestern is going to play this rotation by ear. But Slater is very much at the heart of the question marks at tackle. But he has played his way into the lineup.
Most of the young talent is on the defensive end. That is where true freshmen Samdup Miller is starting at defensive end opposite Joe Gaziano. And that is where linebacker Blake Gallagher and safety J.R. Pace are also set to lineup. All three of those players made some impact in the game Saturday.
None of these guys are the instantaneous stars other programs have seen step into the lineup immediately. Specifically at skill positions, although Northwestern has had that too in Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson most notably.
But this influx of young talent represents something new for the Wildcats. There are major contributions from throughout the roster from freshmen. That only seems to continue. It would figure it would continue as the recruiting continues to get better.
What Northwestern saw this year with so many freshmen ready to play on opening day may only continue.
By all accounts, all these players played well. Yes, there are still questions at tackle. But it seems Fitzgerald is confident that one of Vogel or Slater will cement himself in that role. And certainly, both players should continue to improve. Certainly, both Vogel and Slater will play key roles for the Wildcats moving forward — Vogel is a redshirt freshman.
While most of the talk surrounding Northwestern has been about the veteran leadership and veteran skill players, the fact so many young players seem ready to step up to the plate is certainly promising for Northwestern in the long term. It says the talent base in key positions should be set.
Of course, nothing for any team is fully settled. Every week is a battle for playing time and every year brings new players to challenge for those spots all over again. Football coaches like to think this is a meritocracy.
And, for sure, Northwestern like many other teams are probably getting a lot of players out there early — especially in a game where the team is favored by 24 points — to see what they can do. It is a low-pressure situation for them to get their feet wet. Right now, it is about gaining trust for Big Ten season ahead.
This Saturday at Duke, the leash might get tightened just a bit. Fitzgerald and the Wildcats will find out who they can really rely on.
That is what the non-conference season is for after all. And the Wildcats are seeing just who of these newcomers can translate strong play on the practice field to the games. There is still growing confidence about Northwestern, especially with how the team played in the second half.
The Wildcats should only seemingly get better with more experience. Then again, the level of competition is about to bump up again and there are bigger challenges in the very near future.
This is something new for Northwestern though. A sign perhaps of the increased talent the program is bringing in. It was a pleasant surprise in the game against Nevada. Now the question becomes whether the Wildcats can make it something on the field. whether rewarding the raw talent over perhaps a more experienced player can translate into wins.
The Wildcats are certainly changing. Their expectations have certainly changed — this year, specifically. And a lot of that weight is falling on true freshmen for the first time.
Northwestern Wildcats’ season begins at Maryland
The Northwestern Wildcats’ dreams of winning the Big Ten are surely dead after back-to-back losses to open Big Ten season. Now they have to salvage what they can.
Northwestern fans do not want to hear it. Not the ones who bought into the Big Ten title dreams and are tired of 6-6 bowl games. They have a point. The Wildcats at a certain point should not settle for lower-tier bowl games.
They have a point.
The Wildcats at a certain point should not settle for lower-tier bowl games. At some point, Pat Fitzgerald has to stop accumulating wins and gaining distance from Northwestern’s putrid history and actually compete for a Big Ten title.
Northwestern in Fitzgerald’s decade in Evanston has never really challenged for the Big Ten. Three January bowl games are nice, but that trophy case is pretty bare. And fans are slowly dissatisfied with Pinstripe Bowl trophies.
This season was supposed to be that year the Wildcats took a step forward. The team had the veteran leadership and the schedule to do so. Their tests were early and they would know exactly what kind of season they would have.
Five games into the season, Northwestern is still winless against Power Five teams, losing to Duke in the non-conference season. The two big games to start the conference season ended in disaster for the Wildcats. They lost at Wisconsin and then got shellacked and dominated against Penn State.
Maybe this was expected. Go back and look at my predictions for the season and I did not see Northwestern getting to the “promised land” this year. The lines on both sides simply were too much of a question mark. And everything gets built up from there.
Through the first five games of the season, Northwestern’s defensive line has slowly grown into a strength. Samdup Miller, Tyler Lancaster, Jordan Thompson and Joe Gaziano have started getting pressure and stopping the run. They were critical to the Wildcats’ stellar performance against Saquon Barkley.
The Wildcats’ offensive line? That has hardly gotten better. Clayton Thorson still has little time to throw. Justin Jackson is averaging 67.8 yards per game. The star senior back is not on pace for his fourth 1,000-yard rushing season.
The team needs a break from the daunting defensive lines it has faced. And against Wisconsin, Northwestern proved it could score enough. The supposedly lighter competition will help the Wildcats get themselves back on track.
The bigger questions about whether Northwestern should aspire to a mid-tier bowl game or not will be put aside. The decision on changing coaches will come after the season ends. The players are not about to pack it in for the season. Who knows if that is enough to save their jobs. That evaluation comes after the season.
But Northwestern still has a season to play. And what kind of team this is gets determined in the next seven weeks. Starting with the Maryland game — the first conference game NU can fairly say the team should win.
This is the point where Northwestern’s season will truly begin.
The Wildcats are 2-3. On their list of goals for every year, there is still the baseline goal of going to and winning a bowl game that is still achievable. It is something to salvage from this season. And that is what is left to determine the rest of this season.
Talk to anyone and they would probably say Northwestern is as good as it has ever been. And it is true, the Wildcats have reached a level of consistency their program has never reached before. But they have also missed a bowl game in two of the past four seasons since that supposed breakthrough Gator Bowl win.
This season could quickly resemble that 2012 season when Northwestern had all the skill position talent returning and yet failed to qualify for a bowl game. Northwestern only worked to repeat that five-win season the following year in Trevor Siemian’s senior year.
Those were the kind of seasons Northwestern though the program had grown past. And that is what the team has left to prove this year.
This should still be a bowl team for Northwestern. The team may not be good enough to challenge for a Big Ten West title but it is certainly talented enough to meet this baseline.
The way the Wildcats played through the non-conference season leaves some doubt still. Unbelievably there is still that doubt.
And so the Wildcats begin this seven-week sprint to the finish. Every game feels manageable. Michigan State is the only ranked team remaining on the schedule. Every other team feels beatable if the most optimistic version of Northwestern shows up.
The Wildcats are not likely to go 7-0 and finish with nine wins. But there is no reason to think the Wildcats cannot find four wins against the Terrapins (on their fourth quarter), the Cornhuskers and Golden Gophers (both have been up and down) and the always struggling Illini.
Then again, the road is not easy for Northwestern. Not with that shaky offensive line and a run game the team cannot get going. The Wildcats have not inspired much faith in the last five weeks. These optimistic views of getting to seven or eight wins are borne from those early season expectations the Wildcats have already failed to meet.
The intrigue for this Northwestern team really begins now. The championship dreams are over. The Wildcats must salvage something from this season.
Rally for a bowl berth — any bowl berth — and big questions remain about the program but at least the team has firmed its floor and the base for the program. The season may still be a disappointment, but the team can begin growing for a better 2018.
Fail to make a bowl and then the season verges on disaster. And, at that point, it feels like change has to happen.
If these stakes do not increase urgency around the program, nothing may do that. And that is really what Northwestern has to focus on as this season seemingly begins anew this Saturday. The Wildcats are fighting to keep their program seemingly afloat.
At some point, Northwestern will have to compete for something more meaningful than a minor bowl game. That “perfect storm” team will come again.
Until then, the Wildcats have to play for what they can.
Northwestern Wildcats vs. Wisconsin Badgers: Previews, Predictions and Prognostications
The Northwestern Wildcats dreams of winning the Big Ten West still seem far-fetched. But that can all change with one victory on the road in Madison.
When: Sat. Sept. 30, 2017; 12 p.m. ET/11 a.m. CT
Where: Madison, Wis.; Camp Randall Stadium (80,321)
All-Time Series: Wisconsin leads 58-35-5
Last Meeting: Wisconsin won 21-7 (Nov. 5, 2016)
Line: Wisconsin (-16.5)
The Northwestern Wildcats had September 30 circled on their calendars for a long time. Really, the entire Big Ten had this date circled.
It was the day when everyone would know whether the Northwestern Wildcats — yes those Northwestern Wildcats — are indeed Big Ten West contenders.
The Wildcats certainly believed the stars were aligning for them. They thought they had the right mix of skill player talent and the schedule breaking their way to win the division and have that breakthrough. Momentum from their bowl win was fresh in everyone’s minds.
Those dreams did not completely die, but doubt grew through the nonconference season. Northwestern’s offensive line proved to be as much of a concern as advertised. And the team did not ever really impress in its non-conference games.
Sure beating Bowling Green 49-7 was a historic margin for Northwestern, but nobody is confusing that for a meaningful win. The specter of the Duke game still hangs heavy over this team.
And so a season of promise turned quickly into another “just Northwestern” season.
The Wildcats have the talent and the skill to be a bowl team, but likely not enough to reach that mythical place known as Big Ten contention. Funny how expectations change.
The reality though is the Wildcats can change that narrative once again. The game they circled as the one that would determine their ability to contend for the Big Ten title is still that. The trip to Camp Randall Stadium to face the Wisconsin Badgers is as daunting as ever.
This is still the game that may determine who wins the Big Ten West — even if some other contenders have quietly emerged.
Northwestern can change the narrative once again. With one game. That game they circled long ago against Wisconsin. The game that helps set their course in the Big Ten. The game that determines whether this team can accomplish their long-range goal or make it another season.
That is how every week in the Big Ten may end up, right? Northwestern can still accomplish their goals. they just have to go 1-0 first.
1 Burning Question: Is the offensive line ready for Big Ten play?
Northwestern’s offensive line has been a big question mark the entire season and the non-conference schedule did very little to ease those concerns.
The Wildcats averaged 160.3 rushing yards per game and has given up seven sacks. Against Duke, the best team NU has played to this point, Northwestern had just 191 yards of total offense and gave up 4.0 sacks.
And that was Duke.
Duke is not a bad team, but Duke is not Wisconsin.
Clayton Thorson did not have a lot of time to throw in that game in Durham and Justin Jackson was a non-factor. The Wildcats simply could not move the ball and the team cracked in the 41-17 loss.
It is not likely Northwestern plays that poorly again, but the miscommunication along the offensive line, the struggles to give Thorson time in the pocket and the difficulty getting Justin Jackson interior runs and downfield were chronic through the non-conference.
Wisconsin will be Northwestern’s biggest challenge and the whole offensive gameplan hinges on the line getting the job done.
2 Key Stats
4 — Northwestern has just four sacks through three games this season. And there is not a lot of other pressure to report from the Wildcats’ revamped front seven.
With the secondary dealing with significant injury issues, Northwestern’s inability to get a good push has been a huge issue for the defense. They simply do not get a ton of pressure and it leaves some gaping holes in the watered-down secondary.
Some of this might be because Northwestern is keeping its pressure and blitz packages secret, running a vanilla defensive playbook to start the season. They could unleash themselves a bit more coming off the bye week.
But in all likelihood, Northwestern will try to remain solid and make quick tackles, keeping the offense in front of them.
Eventually, they will need to make a play. And that means getting some pressure on Alex Hornibrook and the Wisconsin backfield.
70 — That is Hornibrook’s completion percentage in non-conference play.
Hornibrook had one magical game against BYU two weekends ago, completing a crazy 18-of-19 passes in the blowout win. The week before was a nightmare for him.
Which version shows up against a pretty good Wildcats pass defense that has allowed opponents to complete just 57.1 percent of their passes.
If Hornibrook is allowed to complete more than 65 percent of his passes in this game, that is great news for the Badgers and really bad news for the Wildcats. It likely means the Badgers run game is running wild and Wisconsin’s pass game is operating on all cylinders…and when that happens it is not good news for opposing teams.
3 4 Key Players
Garrett Dickerson, Northwestern Superback — Wisconsin gets all the talk for its tight ends, but Northwestern has a nice run of tight ends going too. Garrett Dickerson has been solid for the Wildcats so far this year with a team-high 14 receptions for 188 yards. Dickerson is Thorson’s security blanket and often his dump-down option. The Wildcats may target Dickerson underneath if the offensive line struggles. Not to mention, Dickerson should be valuable as a blocker.
Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin Running Back — Who leads the Big Ten in rushing yards per game? It is not any of the big names coming into the season nor highly touted freshman J.K. Dobbins, but Wisconsin’s own frosh sensation in Jonathan Taylor. He has started the last two games, partly due to injury but also because he has flashed potential in the opener. Taylor ripped off the fourth best single game in Wisconsin freshman history in his first start in Week 2. His five rushing touchdowns also lead the Big Ten. Can he continue the Big Ten-best numbers against Big Ten competition?
Tyler Lancaster, Northwestern Defensive Tackle — It is a big game and so the big players need to step up. And there are very few players as big as Tyler Lancaster. Lancaster has been solid for the Wildcats up the middle. He has done a good job stopping the run and plugging the hole in the middle of the line. Lancaster takes up a lot of space and has made some good plays in the backfield against the run. He will have to do that again this week and force Wisconsin to the perimeter, where maybe Northwestern’s speed can gain an advantage. Lancaster does not have to total a ton of tackles, but he needs to make his presence known by forcing the Badgers offense in the direction Northwestern wants it to go and getting pressure in the backfield.
Garrett Dooley, Wisconsin Outside Linebacker — Wisconsin has not gotten to the quarterback a ton…at least until Week 3 against BYU. The Cougars were starting a first-time starter and had offensive line issues. If Wisconsin wants to keep progressing defensively, ramping up the pressure from two new starting outside linebackers in 2017, of which Garrett Dooley is one, would be a great place to start Big Ten play at. Dooley comes in with just one sack, but no player on Wisconsin’s roster has more than two of the eight already piled up this season. He also has eight tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. There is a lot of potential, but now is the time for him to realize it against that Northwestern offensive line you talked about earlier.
Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 21
Anthony Walker leads two Northwestern Wildcats in NFL Draft
Anthony Walker left Northwestern a year early to enter the NFL Draft. He and Ifeadi Odenigbo were selected in the NFL Draft.
The Northwestern Wildcats are not exactly waiting on pins and needles on NFL Draft day. But they had every reason to be excited for the third day of this year’s draft with some stellar players still available on the board.
Northwestern fans are certainly a bit disappointed with the overall showing from the team’s representatives.
Linebacker Anthony Walker, once thought of as a top prospect in the NFL Draft, slipped to the fifth round. Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo was selected in the seventh round. Big Ten Wide Receiver of the Year Austin Carr signed a free agent deal. More players are likely to trickle in.
The Wildcats are still waiting to get the fruits of their improved recruiting classes. The NFL draft prospects are not exactly flowing in.
But Walker was something different. Walker came into the season with significant NFL Draft hype. Some mock drafts had him going in the first round.
Injuries slowed him down this year. When he was healthy, he was still a terror as a linebacker and an all-Big Ten candidate.
Walker became the first Northwestern player since 1996 to declare early for the NFL Draft. And it certainly seemed the right decision for him. There was not much for the Northwestern captain to do at this level.
Walker was selected in the fifth round with the 161st pick by the Indianapolis Colts.
— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) April 29, 2017
Walker will have plenty of competition at middle linebacker, according to Mike Wells of ESPN.com. But Walker has overcome plenty of odds before. And he has shown himself more than capable of dominating games defensively at the Big Ten level.
Senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo also got picked after living up to his expectations his senior year. Odenigbo went in the seventh round to the Minnesota Vikings.
Odenigbo arrived in Evanston as the team’s highest-rated recruit. There was legitimate excitement to see four stars next to a recruit’s name coming to Northwestern.
He was still relatively new to football, his athleticism was not going to carry the day for him alone anymore. And he learned that very quickly as he struggled with injuries. Odenigbo for most of his career was nothing more than a third-down pass rusher.
His senior year changed that. Odenigbo led the conference in sacks for much of the season and became more than just a third-down specialty player. That potential from his high school days remains.
And the Vikings clearly saw that.
— Northwestern Football (@NUFBFamily) April 29, 2017
Ben Goessling of ESPN.com writes Odenigbo fits the model of the projects the Vikings like to work on. Like at Northwestern, Odenigbo will have to grow his game and improve his skills to make it at the next level. But Odenigbo is more than capable of doing so. He has the raw talent.
Two other Northwestern players were signed fairly shortly after the draft.
That included Big Ten wide receiver of the year Austin Carr. Carr signed with the New England Patriots, seemingly a perfect fit for the undersized wide receiver. New England has taken players like Carr and turned them into productive receivers at the NFL level for years.
Northwestern linebacker Joe Jones also signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Jones broke out on the scene his senior year.
These four players will continue their football careers after the NFL Draft’s conclusion. The Wildcats are certainly happy to see these players continue their careers.
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