Northwestern is coming off an impressive 10-3 record from 2015, but coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has a lot of work to do in order to reach double-digit wins once again. The Wildcats can lean on running back Justin Jackson to carry the offense, while quarterback Clayton Thorson should be better in his second year as the starter. The defense was a standout group last season and returns a solid core for 2016. However, the Wildcats have a tougher schedule this year. Is another 10-win season in the works? Or will the schedule and concerns on offense be too much to overcome?
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Previewing Northwestern’s Offense
The Northwestern offense must make significant upgrades in passing (120th in yards per game) and big plays, where it ranked last nationally in percentage of plays 10 yards or longer (14.2). Quarterback Clayton Thorson’s development will help. Now the clear-cut starter, the sophomore improved his footwork and decisiveness during the winter. “He had arm strength and ball speed all the time,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall says. “It was just getting his feet set in the right spot and anticipating the break, anticipating someone getting open.”
A drops-prone receiving corps needs recently converted players like Marcus McShepard (defensive back) and Solomon Vault (running back) to contribute immediately. Austin Carr, who has strong chemistry with Thorson, could become his No. 1 target. Northwestern has little recent production from taller receivers, but redshirt freshman Charlie Fessler shows promise.
Running back is the unit’s most secure position. Justin Jackson has 2,605 rushing yards in his first two seasons, but the staff will try to lighten his load in 2016. Senior Warren Long and explosive redshirt freshman John Moten IV will contribute.
Offensive line play has been spotty, but Northwestern returns an experienced and versatile group that blocked well late in games.
McCall recognizes that the playbook must expand for the Wildcats to come close to 10 wins again. Development at receiver is pivotal because Thorson can handle more responsibility. “We need to get back to pitching and catching the football,” McCall says.
Previewing Northwestern’s Defense
Northwestern became a defense-driven team in 2015 as it led the nation in fewest passing touchdowns allowed (five) and ranked seventh nationally in yards per play allowed (4.5). The Wildcats hub once again looks solid with national awards candidate Anthony Walker at middle linebacker, dynamic junior Godwin Igwebuike at safety, senior Matthew Harris at cornerback and the ability to go five deep at defensive tackle.
The Wildcats need to replenish their depth at end after losing Deonte Gibson and Dean Lowry, who combined for 12 sacks and 26 tackles for a loss last year. Ifeadi Odenigbo is a gifted pass rusher (13.5 career sacks) who must show he’s an every-down player. The spot opposite Odenigbo is critical, and a tackle like C.J. Robbins could slide over.
Once a huge weakness, the secondary has become one of Northwestern’s strongest units through improved recruiting. “Our DBs can run,” coordinator Mike Hankwitz says. “We can match up with people and play more man.”
Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists
While Northwestern would love to see more accuracy from kicker Jack Mitchell (18-of-27 on field goals) or greater leg strength from punter Hunter Niswander (38 yards per punt), it doesn’t take their experience for granted. Vault, meanwhile, is one of the nation’s top kick returners. The Wildcats have struggled at times to find productive punt returners and hope Flynn Nagel or Harris is their answer.
A 10-win season revived Northwestern, but coaches know the same approach — overly reliant on defense with limited big-play threat — isn’t sustainable. The offense will make at least marginal strides, and the defense should again be among the Big Ten’s best. But this could easily be a better team with a worse record as the schedule gets much tougher.
Ohio State and Michigan State return to the slate. Northwestern visits both Big Ten heavyweights along with Iowa, the reigning West champion. The Wildcats face all three teams in October, traditionally their worst month in the Pat Fitzgerald era, so a strong start at home will be imperative.