After two 5-7 seasons, Northwestern bounced back fairly strongly in 2015 behind a freshman quarterback and a pretty solid defense. While the Wildcats only return 12 starters, there are enough key contributors from last season coming back to envision the Wildcats being just as steady in 2016.
Underestimating Northwestern is one of those traps you don't want to find yourself in, because lately the Wildcats are one of those programs that seem to exceed expectations more often than not. Pat Fitzgerald's record at NW is 70-56, which makes him the winningest coach in the history of Northwestern football. Yes, Northwestern may have been historically inept during most of the 20th century, but in modern times, NW has been a fairly consistent football program.
Quarterback was the biggest question mark going into the 2015 season, and true freshman Clayton Thorson (6'4” 230 lbs.) emerged as Northwestern's best playmaker at that position since the days of Kain Colter. He led NW to a season opening 16-6 upset of Stanford, and never really looked back. Thorson hurt teams more with his legs (100 rushes for 397 yards and five touchdowns) than with his arm (completing 51% of his passes for 1,522 yards with seven touchdowns) as a freshman. That's because the coaches wisely didn't put too much of the burden on Thorson in 2015. That should change in 2016, now that he's better acclimated to the speed of the college game. With a full offseason to better learn the playbook and his teammates, he should put up better numbers in 2016. He'll be backed up by junior Matt Alviti (6'0” 200 lbs.), an option quarterback who has played very sparingly his first two seasons, completing three of seven passes in his career.
The biggest reason why Northwestern could let Thorson ease into the starting quarterback role was junior running back Justin Jackson (5'11 190 lbs.) A 1,000 yard back his first two seasons, Jackson rushed for 1,418 yards and five touchdowns last season. Jackson's 312 rushes in 2015 led the Big Ten and trailed only Alabama's Derrick Henry (395 carries) and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey (337 carries). Senior Warren Long (6'0” 210 lbs.) started strong last year, rushing for 152 yards in the first three games, but finished the season with just 329 yards. Offseason surgery kept Long out of spring practice, but he's expected to be fully recovered by the start of preseason practice. Redshirt freshman John Moten IV (6'0” 190 lbs) showed promise this spring as a change-of-pace speed back to complement Jackson this fall, along with sophomore Auston Anderson (5'9” 180 lbs.) If Long is fully recovered and the youngsters develop, look for Jackson's load to lighten a bit in 2016.
With four of last season's top five receivers departing, depth is the biggest concern on the Northwestern offense. That concern, however, is offset by the relative lack of production of the NW receivers last season. Replacing Dan Vitale as the “superback” (otherwise known as a tight end) is junior Garrett Dickerson (6'3” 245 lbs.), who caught 12 passes for 124 yards. Sophomore speed-demon Solomon Vault, Jr. (5'10” 190 lbs.) moved from running back to receiver this spring; he caught 11 passes for 95 yards and rushed for 159 yards last season. Sophomore Flynn Nagel (5'11” 190 lbs.) looked promising in the slot last season before suffering a serious ankle injury in early October. He was limited to no-contact during the spring, but appears to be a candidate to start this fall. Senior Austin Carr (6’1” 195 lbs) is really the only sure-thing NW has to count on at receiver; the former walk-on emerged last season to lead the receivers with 16 catches for 302 yards and two touchdowns.
Injuries on the offensive line meant that only senior right tackle Eric Olson (6’6” 295 lbs.) started the entire season, but also means that Northwestern has players with starting experience returning at each position on the offensive line. Sophomore left tackle Blake Hance (6’5” 300 lbs.) started eight games last season, while senior left guard Ian Park (6’4” 305 lbs.) has started 17 games the last two seasons across the interior of the offensive line.
I don’t think most college football fans fully appreciate how good Northwestern’s defense was in 2015: #12 nationally in scoring defense, #13 in total defense, #3 in defensive pass efficiency, and #21 in rush defense. And while the Wildcats will need to replace five starters in 2016, they still should be pretty good. The biggest hole on the defense is at defensive end, where 2nd team all-Big Ten Dean Lowry is now heading up I-94 to Green Bay. Can senior defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo (6’3” 250 lbs.) finally live up to his recruiting hype? If Odenigbo doesn’t produce, it may fall on junior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster (6’3” 300 lbs.) to cement the line. Lancaster started all 13 games last season, totalling 33 tackles, four for a loss.
Perhaps the biggest reason Northwestern was so good on defense last year was junior middle linebacker Anthony Walker (6’1” 235 lbs.) Walker hit the ground running as a freshman when he was thrust into the starting lineup when Collin Ellis was sidelined by concussions, and hasn’t stopped since. Last season, he totaled 122 tackles with 20.5 for a loss; Walker was only one of five players in college football to top the 20 tackles for loss mark. A first-team all-Big Ten and third team all-American as a sophomore, he’ll put up big numbers in 2016 then will certainly have the option to head to the NFL next spring. Senior Jaylen Prater (6’0” 230 lbs.) started the first nine games at weakside linebacker, contributing 46 tackles before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Sophomore Nate Hall (6’2” 230 lbs.) took over for Prater after that, putting up 59 tackles with 4.5 tackles for a loss; he’ll take over at the SAM linebacker spot.
The secondary should continue to be pretty good with senior cornerback Matthew Harris (5’11” 180 lbs.) returning after earning third team all-Big Ten honors last season. He led the secondary last year with 13 passes broken up and four interceptions; he also added 48 tackles. Junior strong safety Godwin Igwebuike (6’0” 200 lbs.) has started 18 games in his NW career; he led the secondary with 87 tackles last season. Older fans might remember the name “Igwebuike”; Godwin’s cousin Donald played six seasons in the NFL as a kicker. (His second cousin is even more memorable: Christian Okoye, aka the “Nigerian Nightmare”) Junior Keith Watkins (5’11” 180 lbs.) has the unenviable task of replacing departed cornerback Nick VanHoose, he of the pick-six in last year’s game in Lincoln; Watkins put up decent numbers (41 tackles, 6 pass breakups) as a backup last season.
The NU/NW series is marked by an interesting statistic that you probably have never seen before: in every Big Ten game between the two teams, the visiting team has led in every game as the clock hit 0:00 at the end of the fourth quarter. Thanks to the legendary RK3-to-1 Hail Mary, Nebraska does enjoy the series lead during the Big Ten era.
And with the inevitable invasion of the Red Sea in Evanston, Nebraska likely will once again enjoy a home field advantage this year. (Nebraska: Chicago’s Big Ten team?)