Pat Fitzgerald is the father of Northwestern football but his Wildcats have missed the postseason two seasons in a row after five straight bowl games. His roster returns a large chunk of the depth chart — try 15 starters — but he has to plug holes at key positions like quarterback. His roster is in good shape but he needs to regain some former magic if Northwestern wants to win the Big Ten West Division.
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Previewing Northwestern’s Offense for 2015
A unit that has backslid significantly since 2012 must recapture efficiency and explosiveness. The regeneration attempt will occur with a new starting quarterback, as senior Zack Oliver, sophomore Matt Alviti and redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson competed closely throughout the spring.
The offense hinges on three factors where Northwestern struggled in 2014: passing accuracy (57.4 percent), third-down conversions (40 percent) and QB mobility (minus-94 net yards).
The Wildcats can build around running back Justin Jackson, who had six 100-yard rushing performances and ranked fourth among Power 5 freshmen in all-purpose average (98.9 ypg). The return of Christian Jones, Northwestern’s leading receiver in 2012 and 2013, should boost an underperforming receiving corps. Northwestern could use Jones in the slot alongside super backs Dan Vitale and Garrett Dickerson — three big bodies who create matchup problems. Coach Pat Fitzgerald hopes Miles Shuler, Solomon Vault and others can stretch the field, as Northwestern recorded only 34 plays of 20 yards or longer last season, fewer than all but three FBS teams. “We have to get faster and more explosive and create more separation on the perimeter,” Fitzgerald says.
The line must protect better after several players switched positions.
Previewing Northwestern’s Defense for 2015
Recent recruiting upgrades could pay off as young defenders forced into major roles by injury last fall can build on their experience. Two of them, linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Godwin Igwebuike, combined for five interceptions and a forced fumble as redshirt freshmen. Both become full-time starters as Igwebuike joins three returning starters in a secondary that could be Northwestern’s best under Fitzgerald.
The Wildcats are experienced at cornerback and defensive end, where three veterans — Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ifeadi Odenigbo — return alongside Xavier Washington, the only true freshman defender to play in 2014. Odenigbo, who has 8.5 career sacks and forced three fumbles last year, had his best spring and could be ready to break out.
Northwestern needs improved health and production at defensive tackle after allowing six opponents to eclipse 200 yards rushing last year. Outside linebacker also is thin as speedy senior Drew Smith becomes a full-time starter.
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Previewing Northwestern’s Specialists for 2015
Northwestern must restore its effectiveness in the kicking game after a down year. Punter Hunter Niswander stood out in spring ball as he tries to boost a unit that finished 121st and 118th nationally the past two years in net average. Jack Mitchell had a solid first season at kicker, connecting on 14-of-18 field-goal attempts, most notably the game-winner at Notre Dame. Shuler should help a below-average return game along with Vault, who averaged 26.2 yards on kick returns in limited work as a freshman.
A sense of normalcy is back at Northwestern, and so is a sense of urgency. The Wildcats understand what a third consecutive bowl-less campaign would do to a program still fighting the pre-1995 loser label. Fitzgerald has arguably his most talented defense, and if the special teams meet his expectations, the season once again could hinge on reigniting the offense. A drop-prone receiving corps must take a step forward, and an inconsistent line must protect the new quarterback, but there are weapons such as Jackson, Jones and Vitale.
Northwestern must navigate another tricky non-league schedule with Stanford and Duke but once again misses Ohio State and Michigan State in league play. “We’ve got to do the things winners do,” Fitzgerald says. “We’ve got to get that edge back.”