It may have been a rough start to the 2018 season, but Northwestern certainly turned things around on its way to winning the Big Ten West Division and making its first appearance in the conference championship game. The Wildcats (8-4) came up short against Ohio State in Indianapolis, but that shouldn’t take away from the accomplishments of this team.
Northwestern went 0-3 against non-conference opponents and hand to deal with the loss of its top running back before the calendar even turned to October. When most teams would have crumbled, the Wildcats rallied and proceeded to win seven of their final eight games to run away with the Big Ten West title.
Pat Fitzgerald’s team isn’t flashy by any means and their statistics don’t jump off of the page. But this is a well-coached, fundamentally sound group that does just enough on offense and has a solid defense to get the job done. Ranked 22nd in the nation, Northwestern has one more chance to show the nation what it’s made of when the Wildcats take on No. 17 Utah in the Holiday Bowl out in San Diego on Dec. 31.
This Northwestern team is one that prides itself on hard work, grinding out games, and relish being labeled the “underdog.” Here are the players and performances that have stood out the most this season.
Offensive MVP: Flynn Nagel, WR
A senior, the Chicago-area native has saved his best for last, emerging as Clayton Thorson’s go-to receiver. Nagel is in the top 10 in the Big Ten in both receptions (66) and yards (759). He’s capable of the big play (17 catches for 15 or more yards) and caught both of his touchdown passes in Northwestern’s thrilling, come-from-behind win in overtime against Nebraska. He may not have scored much, but Nagel has been by far the Wildcats’ most consistent pass catcher this season.
Defensive MVPs: Paddy Fisher and Blake Gallagher, LBs
These two were among a handful of Northwestern defenders who received All-Big Ten recognition, but the get the nod here for being the heart and soul of the team’s biggest strength. The Wildcats’ defense is a big reason why they won the Big Ten West and Fisher and Gallagher have been right in the thick of the action all season long. Whether it’s stopping the run, covering receivers downfield or pressuring the quarterback these two have done it all.
The duo has combined for 223 tackles, including 11 tackles for a loss with a total of 10 double-digit tackle games thus far. And the best news of all? Both are sophomores meaning they could wreak havoc together for two more seasons.
Best Freshman: Isaiah Bowser, RB
After seeing limited carries to start the season, this Ohio native took over the starting role in the wake of Jeremy Larkin’s retirement due to cervical stenosis. Bowser has taken over the role of lead back and has done well, especially for a freshman. He’s ninth in the Big Ten with 796 rushing yards, including five 100-yard games. He’s another player that figures to be a big part of the Wildcats’ future.
Best Play of the Season: Bennett Skowronek’s Game-Winning Catch vs. Iowa
Trailing 10-7 with 9:27 remaining in the fourth quarter in Iowa City, Clayton Thorson launched a pass downfield to Skowronek, who dove and somehow caught the 32-yard, go-ahead touchdown. Northwestern’s defense took over from there, holding the Hawkeyes scoreless as the Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West title with a 14-10 victory. Skowronek’s catch is arguably the biggest play in Northwestern program history.
Best Performance by a Player: Clayton Thorson’s Career Day vs. Nebraska
On Oct. 13, Thorson used his arm to help the Wildcats come from behind and beat the Cornhuskers 34-31 in overtime. The home crowd at Ryan Field was treated to a career-best outing from Thorson, who finished with 455 passing yards on 41 completions (61 attempts). He had three touchdowns passes, including a 61-yarder to Flynn Nagel. He tossed a couple of interceptions, but the most important thing is he helped Northwestern overcome a 10-point deficit with less than six minutes remaining to send the game into overtime. Thorson wasn’t responsible for the winning points (37-yard field goal by Drew Luckenbaugh) but his fingerprints were all over the thrilling victory.
Best Game (Team Performance): 31-17 Win vs. Wisconsin
The Wildcats held the then-No. 20 Badgers to 323 total yards and three turnovers in stunning Wisconsin in Evanston. Northwestern took full advantage of quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s absence and seized control of the Big Ten West race in the process, thereby ending the Badgers’ two-year reign.
Defining Moment: 20-17 Loss to Michigan
Northwestern blew a 17-0 halftime lead as their offense stalled against the then-No. 14 Wolverines. Michigan found its rhythm on offense, as the Wildcats were unable to generate any pressure on quarterback Shea Patterson. Eventually, Northwestern ran out of gas and time, as the disappointing loss left the Wildcats at 1-3 and searching for answers.
But instead of throwing in the towel, this team stayed together and continued to work hard. And those efforts paid off as a new team took the field following week in East Lansing, beating then-No. 20 Michigan State 29-19. That was the first of four straight wins and seven in the final eight games of the regular season as Northwestern won the Big Ten West and earned a trip to Indianapolis to play for a conference championship.
Biggest Surprise: Losing to Akron at Home
Entering the Sept. 15 matchup, the Zips from the MAC hadn’t defeated a Big Ten team since 1894. What’s more, Northwestern was 9-2 against MAC teams under Pat Fitzgerald. But Akron took advantage of three Wildcat turnovers and outscored them 36-13 in the second half to win 39-34 on Northwestern’s own turf. The Zips left Evanston feeling good about themselves while the Wildcats entered their bye week with more questions than answers.
Biggest Disappointment: Big Ten Championship Game
After proving so many people wrong, the stage was set for Northwestern to really make some noise by winning its first conference title since 2000. But Ohio State was too fast, too athletic and had entirely too much firepower. The Buckeyes dominated from start to finish in a 45-24 victory to make it back-to-back Big Ten titles. While it was certainly nice to play in the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time, it's safe to say that the experience in Indianapolis did not go the way the Wildcats had hoped. But the good thing is the foundation is there for Northwestern to try and make it back to Lucas Oil Stadium next year.
Senior That Will be Missed the Most Next Season: Clayton Thorson, QB
His leadership, toughness and fearlessness alone speak volumes, but considering what he was able to accomplish in his return from a serious knee injury and Thorson will go down as one of the greatest to ever play quarterback for Northwestern. He has the numbers as he's the program's all-time leader in touchdown passes (59), completions (970), and attempts (1,667). He's second in passing yards (10,490) and seventh in rushing touchdowns (27). His 52 starts (all consecutive) are the most by a quarterback in Big Ten history. And most importantly, his 35 wins, 26 of those coming against Big Ten teams, are the most in school history. Replacing the roster spot is easy, replacing the player is nearly impossible.
Player to Watch in 2019: Hunter Johnson, QB
Johnson sat out this year after transferring from Clemson over the summer, but next year he’s one of the favorites to replace Clayton Thorson as the starting quarterback. In 2017, Johnson saw limited playing time for the Tigers, completing 21 of 27 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns. Clemson's offense is similar to what Northwestern runs and he's had this season to get acclimated to the program and learn from Thorson. The quarterback transition will be one of the most important questions that will need to be addressed once spring practice starts up.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Will Pat Fitzgerald Stay in Evanston?
Earlier this week reports surfaced that the Green Bay Packers have interest in Fitzgerald for their head coaching vacancy following the firing of Mike McCarthy. Fitzgerald's name has been attached to many other jobs before, but this is somewhat different in that it's for an NFL job. Fitzgerald has never really expressed a desire to leave his alma mater, but this is a different kind of opportunity.
Fitzgerald deserves a ton of credit for turning Northwestern into the program it is, but he has been a coach at the school for 18 years now, the past 13 as head coach. At 44 years old, Fitzgerald still has plenty of years left in him and he certainly wouldn't be the first college coach to move up to the pros. Right now these are just rumors, but with the coaching carousel operates anything is possible. And should Fitzgerald take another job elsewhere then the outlook for 2019 changes entirely.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.