The 2018 Northwestern Wildcats (3-3, 3-1 Big Ten) had high expectations heading into the season. With the opening of their new practice facility, senior quarterback Clayton Thorson returning from last season’s knee injury, and some young talent ready to fill big departing shoes, the Wildcats were hoping to be potential contenders for the Big Ten West title. The idea was that if they could navigate the first half of their schedule then they would be on pace to do just that. But half way through the season NU is fighting to stay bowl eligible despite the fact that they are currently atop their division.
The season began with a conference win at Purdue, but quickly turned on a dime with three straight home losses to Duke, Akron and Michigan by a combined score of 80-70. From there Northwestern had to depend on their somewhat struggling defense to overcome a sluggish offense in the fourth quarter to beat Michigan State on the road, then took advantage of multiple second-half mistakes by Nebraska to win in overtime last week. This isn’t the first time the Wildcats have had a back-and-forth season under Pat Fitzgerald and they’ve overcome these types of first halves before. A common theme among Fitzgerald-coached teams is the lack of consistency.
Thorson didn’t play a full game until he took the field against Michigan. He had been on a “pitch count” as termed by Fitzgerald as part of his recovery from offseason knee surgery. Because of that it’s been difficult for him to get into a rhythm and the offense has stalled at times. In between the Akron and Michigan games (with the bye week tucked in), sophomore running back Jeremy Larkin announced his retirement from organized football after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis. With Larkin, NU was averaging a little more than 90 rushing yards per game, without him they’re only gaining 25 per game.
The defense has also had its share of struggles due to the talent drain from last season. The Wildcats are 10th in the Big Ten in both total (403.8 ypg) and scoring (26.2 ppg) defense. The defense has not been able to generate much of a pass rush with just nine sacks (tied for 12th in conference) and 17 quarterback hurries in six games. The turnovers (six INTs, two fumbles) just haven't been there either.
Stronger outings from Thorson, rediscovering the running game, and better performances from the defense are the challenges that the Wildcats need to meet head on moving forward.
Offensive MVP: WR Flynn Nagel
The senior has been the go-to player for the Wildcats despite everything that this team has been through. He only has two touchdown catches this year (both came against Nebraska last week), but his 48 receptions and 622 receiving yards lead the Big Ten. His ability to stretch the field and move the chains has been a lifesaver for this Wildcats team. With Northwestern essentially being a one-dimensional offense at the moment, Nagel will be leaned on heavily moving forward.
Defensive MVPs: LB Paddy Fisher, DL Joe Gaziano and CB Montre Hartage
It's a three-way tie and for good reason. Not only do the Fisher, Gaziano and Hartage demonstrate leadership on the field and in the classroom, they also bring it on game day. Fisher is sixth in the Big Ten in tackles while Gaziano is tied for eighth in sacks (3.5). Hartage is tied for sixth (with teammate JR Pace) for sixth with eight passes defended.
Despite the issues on this side of the ball, these three are the ironmen of this defense and could be potential NFL prospects at season’s end. They’ll have to rally the troops for these final six games if they want to play in a third straight bowl game.
Best Moment of the First Half: Comeback Win Over Nebraska
The winless Cornhuskers had the Wildcats dead to rights as they led 20-14 heading into the fourth quarter. But countless mistakes by Nebraska, some of them too good to be true, allowed the Wildcats to outscore the Huskers’ 18-11 during the fourth quarter and overtime (a 99-yard, game-tying drive helped) to keep Scott Frost and company winless. While it may not be the biggest win in school history, it’s definitely one of the most memorable and exciting.
Best Newcomer: DB JR Pace
After playing in just five games last season, the Georgia native has come into his own as a sophomore. He is tied for second in the Big Ten with three interceptions while adding 37 total tackles, three tackles for a loss and five pass breakups. He may not be at the top of every box score, but he’s definitely made his presence felt.
Biggest Surprise: The Lack of a Kicking Game
Last year Charlie Kuhbander converted 13 of 16 field goals (81 percent) and 43 of 44 extra points (97percent) for 82 points. This year the sophomore hasn’t been as consistent so he’s been sharing reps with fellow sophomore Drew Luckenbaugh. Together, they have connected on just four of eight field goal attempts and have already missed four PATs (18-for-22). While they haven't had many attempts because of the offense's struggles, it doesn't matter if you can't convert when called upon.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Challenging schedule lies ahead
Northwestern's two toughest opponents (Wisconsin, Notre Dame) come to Evanston, but the other four games are on the road, including Big Ten West matchups with Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois. The Wildcats start their second half with what should be a winnable road game at Rutgers, but after that is where things get difficult with consecutive matchups against the Badgers, Fighting Irish and Hawkeyes. Northwestern needs just three more wins to become bowl eligible, but getting those will be easier said than done.
2. Run defense
With so many tough games, including five against Big Ten teams, the Wildcats need to do a better job against the run. Conference opponents are averaging 177.3 rushing yards per game against Northwestern, including the 202 surrendered to Purdue in the season opener and the 231 gained by Nebraska last week. Michigan also had considerable success (180 yards) on the ground and all eight rushing touchdowns given up by the Wildcats have come against Big Ten teams.
Not only is Wisconsin, who leads the Big Ten and is sixth nationally in rushing offense, still on the schedule, so is Illinois, which is a surprising 22nd in the FBS at 228.8 rushing yards per game. Notre Dame and Iowa also both average more than 155 rushing yards per game. This is clearly an area that Northwestern's defense must focus on if it wants to be competitive against these teams.
3. Pass rush
Northwestern is 10th in the Big Ten in passing defense as the Wildcats have given up 254.5 yards per game through the air. There have only been eight touchdown passes allowed compared to six interceptions, but the glaring number is 65.1. That's the opposition's completion percentage as Northwestern has not been able to generate much of a pass rush. In the Big Ten, the only team with fewer sacks than the Wildcats' nine is Wisconsin (eight). Northwestern is tied for 103rd in the FBS when it comes to sacks.
More pressure will be needed moving forward with games against Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Iowa still on tap. Outside of the Fighting Irish's Ian Book and the Hawkeyes' Nate Stanley there really aren't any prolific passers that the Wildcats need to prepare for, but the last thing you want to give any quarterback is a clean pocket and plenty of time to find a receiver downfield.
With Pat Fitzgerald being a former linebacker, you know he would like to see his defense find a way to ramp up the pressure.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 3 Notre Dame
If the season ended today the Fighting Irish would be in the College Football Playoff. The No. 4 team in the land has seen an offensive surge since making the quarterback change from Brandon Wimbush to Ian Book. In Book's first four starts the Irish have scored 158 points or nearly 40 per game.
Book has been accurate (75.2 percent completion rate) and he's made plays with his both his arm and legs, accounting for 14 total touchdowns. Notre Dame also has two running backs in Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr. who are averaging better than five yards per carry and a defense that is holding opponents to fewer than 19 points per game. Thankfully for Northwestern this game is at home.
2. Oct. 27 Wisconsin
Even though the Badgers have lost to BYU and Michigan, they still have the Big Ten's top rushing offense led by sophomore Jonathan Taylor, who is second nationally with 950 yards on the ground. Taylor will continue his assault on the Wisconsin record book as the Badgers look to retain their Big Ten West crown. Wisconsin has won each of the last two meetings against Northwestern.
3. Nov. 10 at Iowa
The Hawkeyed are currently ranked 19th in the AP Poll and are averaging nearly 32 points per game. The defense is second only to Michigan in points allowed at 16.5 per contest. With balance on both sides of the ball, this will be a difficult challenge for the Wildcats given their consistency issues. Northwestern has beaten Iowa in each of the past two seasons, but it's never easy to play the Hawkeyes in Kinnick Stadium.
4. Nov. 24 at Illinois
The most difficult part about this game is that this is Northwestern’s annual rivalry game in which the Land of Lincoln trophy is at stake. Beyond that the Wildcats have defeated their in-state rivals three straight times and have scored 42 points in each of the last two meetings. The Fighting Illini have shown some improvement, especially on offense. Illinois has more than doubled its rushing output going from 106 yards per game in 2017 to 229 (second in Big Ten, 22nd in FBS) thus far this season.
5. Nov. 17 at Minnesota
This game could become more challenging as it gets closer, but that depends on whether or not P.J. Fleck can turn the Golden Gophers' offense around. They’ve been trending downward as they went from scoring 95 points in their first three games, to just 58 over the last three, including 13 points against Maryland and 14 against Ohio State. Northwestern has shut out Minnesota in two of its last three meetings (2017, '15), both of those games taking place in Evanston.
6. Oct. 20 at Rutgers
This is the easiest game left on Northwestern’s schedule as Rutgers is probably headed for a program overhaul once the season is over.
— 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.