Northwestern football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Wildcats, best players and season prediction.
What You Need To Know About The Northwestern Offense
The Wildcats managed to come up with a big ten-win season without much happening on offense. This time around, there needs to be more of a downfield passing game, and that starts with Clayton Thorson being more of a playmaking quarterback.
Thorson did what he needed to do to get by as a freshman, but the Cats had the fourth-least efficient passing game in the nation and finished 119th in college football overall in passing.
A few key receivers will need to step up and make Thorson’s life easier, but it’ll still be the running game that controls the offense thanks to the return of Justin Jackson. He might not be big, but he was tough enough to run over 300 times for over 1,400 yards – he’ll be the centerpiece of the attack again. He’ll be great again, but he once again needs the line in front of him to shine.
There’s a little bit of patching needing to be done up front, but it’ll once again be a strong front five that should be able to keep the chains moving. Pass protection wasn’t a plus, but as long as this group is paving the way for Jackson, it’ll be doing its job.
Biggest Key To The Northwestern Offense
Again, more downfield passing. The formula worked with a fantastic defense, strong running game, and not making a lot of big mistakes, but the passing game wasn’t there when things went wrong. When Northwestern got down, there wasn’t any hope of bouncing back. Now that Thorson knows what he’s doing throwing for just 1,522 yards and averaging 5.2 yards per attempt – the third-worst in the nation – won’t cut it.
What You Need To Know About The Northwestern Defense
Now that’s what the Northwestern defense is supposed to be like under head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
The Wildcats finished 13th overall, was a brick wall against the run, and was third in the nation in pass efficiency defense. Why did it work? It was one of the most physical years yet in the Fitzgerald era with a front seven that dominated at times.
The linebacking corps is once again going to be a major positive with Anthony Walker one of the best all-around defenders in the Big Ten and with Nate Hall a rising star on the outside.
The defensive front is the issue – it needs an overhaul after its terrific season. However, it’s a front four full of upperclassmen that has the size and upside to be fine. It needs players like Ifeadi Odenigbo to be up to snuff, but as long as the pass rush is coming from the front seven again, everything should work out fine in the strong secondary.
Like the line, the defensive backfield needs a little bit of help from some new starters, but the upperclassmen starters and promising key backups should keep the fun going. This might not be the secondary of last year, but it’ll be fine.
Biggest Key To The Northwestern Defense
The run defense has to dominate again. Even with an improved passing game, the Wildcats don’t have the firepower of the deep play punch to keep up in a firefight. Last year they didn’t really have to thanks to a defense that kept scores low but allowing fewer than 20 points in eight games. When the run D didn’t work and other offenses were able to take control, the NU offense wasn’t able to pick up the slack.
Yes, the Cats lots to Michigan, Iowa and Tennessee in blowouts because all three opponents were way better, but they were also the only three teams to come up with 200 rushing yards or more. Over the last four years, the team is 3-11 when allowing two bills or more.
Northwestern Will Be Far Better If …
It always, always, always, always wins the turnover margin. Yeah, duh, every team wants to win the turnover stat, but for a limited team like Northwestern, it’s even more important than it is for just about everyone else. Last year, the Wildcats were 7-0 when on the positive side of the turnover margin. Under Fitzgerald, NU has won its last 12 games when it wins the battle.
Best Northwestern Offensive Player
RB Justin Jackson, Jr. – It would be nice if there was a dynamic receiver or three who’d dominate defenses, and it would be a huge plus if the quarterback play was better, but Jackson is the offense. He’s not really built for being the workhorse as a thin 190-pound runner who relies mostly on being shifty and quick. It works for him, and for the Cats.
Best Northwestern Defensive Player
LB Anthony Walker, Jr. – The best all-around player on a dominant defensive front last season, Walker was a steady run defender and managed to get behind the line for close to 20 tackles for loss – he did it all. It’s not a big stretch to call him one of the Big Ten’s most valuable players – he’s the do-it-all force the D works around.
Key Player To A Successful Season
WR Austin Carr, Sr. – Clayton Throrson really is the team’s most important factor considering the quarterback play has to improve and be a bigger deal, but that only works if the receiving corps plays its part. Carr only caught 16 passes last year, but he averaged close to 19 yards per grab and showed off the deep play ability to potentially be a gamechanger. The offense takes on a whole new look if he becomes a factor.
The Northwestern Season Will Be A Success If …
It comes up with a winning season. Just when it seemed like Northwestern was going to bust through after a 10-3 2012 season, it crashed and burned in the second half of 2013 to finish 5-7. This isn’t going to be a ten-win team again, but it if can win seven games and get back to a bowl game, that’ll be a nice follow-up to a magical year.
Sept. 3 vs. Western Michigan – Last season the attitude was there from the start with a 16-6 win over Stanford that ended up being one of the most important games of the season on a national landscape. 10-1 in the last 11 openers, NU is good at coming out strong, but it’s about to be challenged by a team that’s about as dangerous an opening day matchup as they come – at least for a MAC team. WMU has one of the MAC’s most experienced and most explosive teams, and it has the firepower to get up fast and take the Cats out of their comfort zone.
2015 Northwestern Fun Stats
– Northwestern Second Quarter Scoring: 104 – Northwestern Second Half Scoring: 99
– Punt Return Average: Northwestern 8.3 yards – Opponents 1.9 yards
– Passing TDs: Northwestern 8 – Opponents 5