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College Football Preview 2017-2018: 22. Northwestern Wildcats

22. Northwestern Wildcats

Immense talent offensively and favorable schedule means possible Big Ten dark horse

  • Location: Evanston, Illinois
  • Conference: Big Ten (West)
  • Schedule
  • Roster
  • Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (12th year)
  • Last Years Record: 7-6 (5-4 Big Ten)
  • Bowl Result: Victory in Pinstripe Bowl


After winning ten games in '15-'16, Northwestern was hoping last season would be the year they cemented themselves as a perennial power in the Big Ten West. That never really happened; the Wildcats opened the season with a heartbreaking one-point loss to Western Michigan and then even more deflating loss one week later, losing to FCS foe Illinois State on a last second field goal. Northwestern was able to recover, leaning on a dangerous passing attack and aggressive defense to rally to a postseason bid, which they eventually beat Pittsburgh in the Pinstripe Bowl. Overall, it was a weird year in Evanston, but still one that showed the program's potential (beating a very good ACC opponent and pushing eventual Big Ten champ Ohio State to the brink in a 24-20 loss). With a number of key playmakers returning on the offense, the deepest defense the team has had in years and a great offensive line, 2017 could be the magical year Northwestern was hoping for a season ago, and one that could see them challenge for a division crown.

Clayton Thorson
Offense: Junior quarterback Clayton Thorson returns to Northwestern hoping to build on a solid sophomore campaign. Thorson tossed for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns on the year and while he still struggled occasionally with mistakes and deep throws, he showed significant progress. Now a third-year starter, the Wildcats are hoping Thorson's impressive ability to create with his legs will pair perfectly with his improved accuracy, transforming him into a true dual threat. Thorson will be joined in the backfield by perhaps the nation's most underrated running back. Senior Justin Jackson quietly ran for 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns a year ago, absolutely shredding a conference known for its ability to stop the run. Jackson has proven time and time again his explosiveness in the open field and his impressive vision to seek out gaps. Jackson needs just 356 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher. What should only make Jackson more lethal is the fact he is running behind the best offensive line since he arrived on campus. Four starters return to the O-Line, including anchors Tommy Doles and Brad North. Doles, a junior right guard, will pair with fellow junior J.B. Butler to spearhead the rushing attack, which showed its potential late in '16, when they rushed for 526 yards in the final two games. However, both tackles need to take big steps forward in order to improve the pass protection, which was very poor throughout much of last season. Junior Blake Hance returns at left tackle, but right tackle is up for grabs, with sophomore Andrew Otterman appearing to be the frontrunner at the position. A major question for Northwestern as they entered spring was finding a new go-to receiver after Biletnikoff Award finalist Austin Carr graduated. Carr was insanely reliable, with 90 receptions, 1,247 yards and 12 touchdowns, and the offense will miss his ability to create on third downs and in the red zone. The most likely candidate to see a major increase in targets is junior Flynn Nagel, who is now the team's top returning receiver, with 40 catches for 447 yards last year. Nagel isn't as sure-handed as Carr but is slightly more athletic and should make plenty of plays. Senior Solomon Vault has long had impressive potential, but is still putting it all together. Vault recorded 15 catches a season ago, but was actually fourth on the team in carries with 11, so he should get some action on jet sweeps and such. Big things are also expected from newcomer Jalen Brown, an Oregon transfer. Brown was supposed to be the perfect fit in
Justin Jackson
Oregon's high-flying offense, but he never really got the opportunities to show what he could do. His speed should really stretch the defense and open things up for this offense. At superback (a hybrid tight end/fullback position in this offense), the Wildcats have senior Garrett Dickerson back. Dickerson is an established blocker and is a premier red zone threat, picking up five touchdowns last season. 

Defense: Being a former linebacker himself, head coach Pat Fitzgerald has always stressed the importance of defense and often his teams are some of the most well-coached and disciplined defenders in the Big Ten. Fitzgerald and defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz should have plenty of fun with this group, which has a ton of talent and depth back at the defensive line and in the secondary. Up front, Northwestern has two All-Big Ten candidates in seniors Tyler Lancaster and Xavier Washington. Washington is the team's most proven pass rusher, with 4.5 sacks a season ago. He bulked up even more in the off-season, and is ready to give opposing offensive linemen serious problems in '17. Lancaster isn't much of a pass rusher but he has proven himself as a valuable asset in run support and a key veteran presence. The defensive tackle had 28 tackles and four tackles for loss last season, and should be even better this year. The other tackle spot is also in good hands, as junior Jordan Thompson could be a possible breakout candidate. The depth at tackle is also very impressive, as sophomore Alex Miller and junior Fred Wyatt return, and should rotate in. Neither are wonderful athletes, but find ways to make an impact and have a decent amount of experience. The Wildcats are technically breaking in a new starter at the end spot opposite of Washington, but it isn't like sophomore Joe Gaziano is completely inexperienced. Despite being very young a year ago, Gaziano had 4.5 sacks, and is a natural pass rusher. The biggest area of concern on this defense is clearly at the linebacker positions, where the Wildcats will have to replace the leader of the defense, Anthony Walker, who left for the NFL a year early. Walker did it all for Northwestern over his tenure, including 105 tackles, 10 TFL, five pass deflections and four forced fumbles this past season. Walker is far from the only loss at the position. In fact, Northwestern is so thin at linebacker the team could run a lot of 4-2-5 sets this season, hoping to mitigate the inexperience they have at the position. Junior Nate Hall is a good player, who had 73 tackles in 2016. He can play at either outside or inside linebacker and is extremely rangy, so expecting him to lead the team in tackles isn't a crazy thought. Seniors Warren Long and Brett Walsh have not seen a ton of action since arriving on campus, but understand the system and are taught well. There is a good chance one, or both, could vie for a starting job. The Wildcats struggled to stop the pass in '16, allowing 265.2 yards per game (109th in the country), but they hope to change that in a big way this year. Three starters are back in the secondary, namely senior safety Godwin Igwebuike, one of the conference's premier defenders. Igwebuike had 108 tackles a season ago, including six for a loss. Igwebuike has proven he can be a major help in run support, while also being extremely effective in coverage, a truly incredibly versatile difference-maker. He'll have to play a huge role on this defense if the pass defense is really going to take the next step. Fellow senior Kyle Quiero is also back as a rock-solid defender in the back (52 tackles, two interceptions in '16). The real pressure is on the cornerbacks, where Northwestern really struggled last year. Junior Montre Hartage has all the tools to be a shutdown corner, but has struggled with consistency. However, another year under his belt in the Big Ten should allow him to take major steps forward. The corner spot opposite of him is certainly up for grabs, with junior Keith Watkins II battling sophomores Roderick Campbell and Alonzo Mayo for the starting job.

Special Teams: Placekicking was a problem for Northwestern a season ago, so much in fact that Pat Fitzgerald essentially abandoned it, attempting just 12 field goals over the course of the season. Newcomer Charlie Kuhbander could be the new blood the team needs to finally get over their kicking woes. The good news is that the rest of the special teams should be top-notch, with veteran Hunter Niswander back at punter, and Solomon Vault back at kick returner.

Despite the fact they were maddeningly inconsistent last season, Northwestern was likely better than their record may have indicated, as they pushed Ohio State to the brink in a four-point loss and ran past Pitt in the Pinstripe Bowl. As the team looks ahead to 2017, some big things could be in store if they can capitalize on that late-season success. Thorson and Jackson will keep the offense humming along as usual, and the defense should see big improvement across the board. Combine that with the team's impressive ability to create turnovers (14th in the country in turnover differential last season) and a pretty weak non-conference schedule the writing is on the wall for a possible breakthrough in Evanston. Wisconsin should likely be considered the favorite in the Big Ten West, but if the Wildcats can get another go-to receiver to emerge and tighten up their linebacker corps, this team very well could push the Badgers and be a major dark horse in the Big Ten.

Player to Watch
Jalen Brown, WR
When Jalen Brown arrived on Oregon's campus in 2014 as an early enrollee, the explosive wide out was supposed to be a seamless fit in the up-tempo Ducks attack, and a future star. Brown flashed plenty of promise over the course of his time in Eugene, but never really saw the opportunities for a breakout. After graduating from Oregon, Brown has decided to try his luck elsewhere, using his remaining two years of eligibility to land in Evanston, Illinois. The Wildcats will immediately utilize Brown's game-changing speed to their advantage, and get the dynamic playmaker the ball as often as possible.

Five-Year Trend
2012: 10-3 (5-3 Big Ten)*
2013: 5-7 (1-7 Big Ten)
2014: 5-7 (3-5 Big Ten)
2015: 10-3 (6-2 Big Ten)*
2016: 7-6 (5-4 Big Ten)*

*= Bowl appearance

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