College Football

Will the real Northwestern please stand up?

CHOOSE YOUR OWN THEME

Northwestern in 2015 had it all.

They won as a massive underdog. They won big as an underdog. They choked. They reeled. They got lucky. They ended with a thud. Choose your own narrative.

These are the sorts of ups and downs that come with a young team. Northwestern started a freshman at quarterback, and he played like one. But a top-five defense and occasionally plucky special teams gave the Wildcats just enough of a cushion to be in a position to win games.

NW 15Five, in fact. 5-0 in one-possession games. 7-0 in games decided by ten points or less. That finishing power will win you a few games in the Big Ten. Usually when teams have a young quarterback but a stingy defense and wins a lot of close games (amidst a lot of injuries), you expect that offense to gel and streamline a bit and lead to more comfortable wins the next year.

The problem was that three times in 2015, Northwestern was terrible. Three losses, by an average score of 41 to 6. Usually when teams win a bunch of close games and get blown away in a few, you expect some of those close games to go the other way the next year.

So take your pick. Either Northwestern was a young team on the verge of a breakthrough or it was a shaky team on the verge of a breakdown.

I might look a little of both. The upside? Northwestern will probably play much more consistent football, particularly on offense. The downside? They will probably lose more games in the process. Northwestern dodged the heavy hitters from the East last year. This year Sparty and Brutus are back on the schedule, and Willie has to go play at their place.

To build on 2015 they’ll need two things, and both are obvious. Firstly, quarterback Clayton Thorson has to be more consistent. Second, the defense has to maintain its 2015 level of play.

LET JACKSON EAT

Junior running back Justin Jackson has been indispensable for the Wildcats, grabbing the starting role as a freshman and barreling for 2,600 yards and 15 touchdowns. Neither rush nor pass was top-flight last year, but Jackson toted for 20+ carries in nine games last year. All nine of those games Northwestern won. When the Wildcats needed a game closed out, Jackson could do it.

Then there was Thorson. It would be very easy for me to look at his 51% completion rate, 7-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and mere 4.4 yards per attempt and put the blame for Northwestern’s struggles on him. There’s plenty to find fault with here and I don’t think I’m going to outrage any Northwestern fans by saying he needs to be better.

But it wouldn’t be fair to dwell on his shortcomings and not mention the few times his heroics delivered Northwestern a game. He ran for a 42-yard touchdown to help lift the Wildcats past Stanford. His runs of 68 and 49 yards put Northwestern in scoring position against Nebraska when the rest of the offense was shut down. They capitalized both times and won by two. Back-to-back 16-yard runs set up the game-winning touchdown against Purdue.

Northwestern needs to make sure it gets that guy back. It could be so easy for Thorson to get down about a bad freshman year and go into a shell. I expect the Big Ten West to be decided by some very close, very ugly games, and the team whose quarterback can gut it out and deliver the clutch play will be the team that makes it to Indy.

Unfortunately, Thorson’s struggles meant a very talented crop of receivers went underused. Superback Dan Vitale and wideouts Miles Shuler and Christian Jones were outstanding and Thorson could have used the continuity.

Instead he gets Mike McHugh and Solomon Vault, who have contributed but not excelled. Vault was occasionally used in the run game to no avail but was a major player on special teams. The new superback is Garrett Dickerson, targeted a few times in 2015. Two defensive backs, Steven Reese and Marcus McShepard, converted to wideout in the spring. Northwestern is excited about McShephard’s 4.3 speed, hoping he can add a much-needed vertical element to this offense.

That none of these guys have eye-popping numbers is not really concerning: Northwestern’s passing game is about as low-risk/low-reward as there is. But they need efficiency. And Thorson needs to be able to get the ball to the flat a bit more accurately.

Lastly, an offensive line that used seven different starting lineups in 2015 might finally get to gel. Of the returning six linemen, none played in all 13 games, and only one played in more than nine. No offensive line is going to be successful with so many injuries, and indeed, it was the offensive line that got worked over in Northwestern’s three losses. If the injury bug stays away this will be a much-improved line.

THE DEFENSE STEPPED UP

When the offense struggled, usually the defense was able to deliver a big play. Kyle Queiro clinched the Stanford game with an interception. Nick VanHoose’s pick-six helped the Wildcats top Nebraska. When stalemated with Wisconsin, the Wildcats forced five turnovers.

That’ll help a lagging offense and make a substantial difference in the win column.

Opponents insisted on throwing on Northwestern more than the national average on early and late downs, and the Wildcat secondary was more than happy to let a ninth-rated Passing S&P+ defense shut them down over and over.

Who could blame them, with Dean Lowry coming off the edge? He and fellow end Deonte Gibson contributed mightily to this defense with 26 tackles for loss and twelve sacks between them. Unfortunately, both are gone.

They’ve got young guys to spare (of the four presumed starters, one was a freshman and two were sophomores in 2015) but lack a clear leader on the line. Fortunately, such a leader is easily found at the linebacker role. Anthony Walker Jr. was a one-man wrecking crew in 2015 with 20.5(!) tackles for loss, and from the middle linebacker position no less. Expect that number to drop off as offensive lines won’t have to split their attention between Walker and the two defensive ends, but he will anchor the front seven of this defense.

In the back, a very talented secondary could potentially reload but faces some questions. First, it has to replace two very important pieces in lockdown corner Nick VanHoose and safety Traveon Harris. Second, its depth (already on the shallow side) took a hit this week with the announcement that corner Keith Watkins II will miss the season a knee injury.

Top to bottom, this is still Northwestern’s strongest position. Fitzgerald is bullish on the remaining players, saying corner Matthew Harris (13 breakups in 2015) could be an all-time great. Godwin Igwebuike has been a stalwart safety two seasons running. Montre Hartage had a strong offseason. Keep an eye on four-star true freshman Roderick Campbell or redshirt freshmen Trae Williams and Alonzo Mayo to possibly get a look with the loss of Watkins.

Nobody else better get hurt, though. This unit already stands to drop off a little simply because performances of 2015’s quality don’t come around often and another injury would force Fitzgerald to reach pretty deep into the cupboard.

SPECIAL TEAMS: JUST GOOD ENOUGH

Punter Hunter Niswander put just enough kicks into the 20 to make his defense’s work easier. (Making opponents go the length of the field in one-possession games makes a huge difference.) While Jack Mitchell was spotty at field goals (just 18 of 27) he did fine at kickoffs. Northwestern managed to turn a lot of close games without relying on him for three points.

Solomon Vault was a potentially dangerous kickoff returner, the operative word there being “potentially.” When he hit, he took two kickoffs back for scores, but when he didn’t, he went nowhere. And there was no punt return threat to speak of. In the spring, Fitzgerald mentioned that cornerback-turned-wideout Marcus McShepard might be used to inject a little life into punt returns.

SO WHICH THEME IS IT?

NW 16Is Northwestern the plucky team that overcame youth and injury to win a few close games, and now will leverage that experience into more decisive wins? Or is Northwestern the one-dimensional offense that got lucky in some close games, was exposed in its games against elite teams, and is due for heartbreak?

Like I said earlier, it could be both. I fully expect Northwestern will be a much more consistent and stable offense. While the passing game isn’t quite reliable yet, the solidified offensive line means the run game can be leaned on. Meanwhile, I don’t expect another top-five performance from this defense due to the losses, but top-20 or 30 might get the job done.

Again, I expect this year’s Big Ten West race to come down to a few bounces of the ball between Northwestern, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Of those, Wisconsin has the hardest road to Indy with Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State on the schedule. Northwestern gets the second-hardest cross-divisional pairings with visits to Michigan State and Ohio State. While these aren’t automatic Ls by any stretch, losing both would set the odds squarely against the Wildcats.

However, it might not even matter: those cross-divisional games come after hosting Nebraska and a visit to Iowa. Get to 2-0 right out of the gate and those crossover games matter a lot less. Fall to 0-2 and, well, at least Northwestern has academics.

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