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Reviewing the 2017 Northwestern Wildcats

NW has been solid in recent weeks, with victories over Michigan State & Iowa. Will they keep momentum alive this weekend in Lincoln against NU?

Gallery Photo: Nebraska vs. Northwestern 2013 Gallery
Could this happen again?

For the most part, Northwestern has lived up to their preseason expectations to finish second in the Big Ten’s west division. They lost to Wisconsin and Penn State, but have beaten Iowa and Michigan State, with the latter going to triple overtime.

But there’s one game that makes no sense for 5-3 Northwestern: a 41-17 loss to 4-5 Duke. In that game, Northwestern couldn’t run the ball (22 yards rushing) or throw the ball (Clayton Thorson completed 11 of 29 passes with two interceptions) while pretty much allowing Duke to do whatever they pleased (rushing for 256 yards, passing for 305 more).

Other than that game, Thorson has been pretty good this season. He’s completed over 61% of his passes for 2,044 yards and ten touchdowns with nine interceptions. Thorson still isn’t much of a threat to run(other than against a Mark Banker defense), netting just 11 yards gained this season.

Senior running back Justin Jackson hasn’t had his typical season for Northwestern. He’s rushed for 644 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. At his current pace, Jackson might not top 1,000 yards rushing in the regular season, which would be his lowest college season. Jackson is tied with Flynn Nagel for the team lead with 33 receptions. Nagel’s 33 catches gained 338 yards and two touchdowns; Jackson’s for 218 yards. Sophomore wide receiver Bennett Skowronek has 28 catches for 378 yards and three touchdowns.

Defensively, Northwestern ranks in the bottom half of the Big Ten: 9th in scoring defense, 10th in total defense and 13th in pass defense. But this might not be the week for Nebraska to figure out their anemic rushing attack; the Wildcats rank fifth in the Big Ten, allowing just 118 yards per game. Redshirt freshman middle linebacker Paddy Fisher ranks third in the Big Ten with 73 tackles; last week, Fisher was the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week after forcing two fumbles and totalling 17 tackles (14 solo) against Michigan State. Senior safety Godwin Igwebuike leads the Wildcats secondary with 7 pass breakups, while sophomore defensive end Joe Gaziano has six sacks and five quarterback hurries.

When you consider the history of the visiting team winning every game in this series since Nebraska joined the Big Ten (other than the RK3-to-1 Hail Mary), I think Northwestern has to be the favorite this weekend. The Wildcats, despite that Duke headscratcher, seem to have had the better season thus far. Not to say Nebraska CAN’T win, but it’ll take their best effort of the season to do so. Below, we’ll revisit the summer preview of Northwestern.

An interesting fact about the Nebraska/Northwestern series: the visiting team has been leading on the scoreboard when the clock hit zero at the end of the fourth quarter. Nebraska has won all three games in Evanston, while Northwestern is 2-1 in Lincoln. Only the RK3-to-1 “Hail Mary” from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp saved NU from a loss to the Wildcats in Lincoln. And there's reason to think that this anomaly will continue this year at Memorial Stadium, as the Wildcats return 16 starters this season.

Junior Clayton Thorson (6'4” 200 lbs.) has started every game for Northwestern in his career; last season, he completed nearly 59% of his passes for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. A dual-threat quarterback, Thorson has had his most success on the ground against NU, with touchdown runs of 68 and 48 yards in 2015 and a 42 yard run last season. For the entire season, Thorson ran for 98 yards and five touchdowns. (Clearly, Bob Diaco can't help but have a better plan for defending Thorson than Mark Banker had.) As last season went on, Thorson's passing improved, which in turn improved the production of the NW offense. If Thorson goes down, there's almost no experience on the bench. Senior Matt Alviti (6'0” 200 lbs.) has only thrown eight passes in his career, with redshirt freshman Aida Smith (6'2” 200 lbs.) also in the program.

Barring injury, senior running back Justin Jackson (5'11” 193 lbs.) should become Northwestern's all time leading rusher in September this season. In his first three seasons, he's rushed for 1,187, 1,418 and 1,524 yards, earning all-conference mentions every season. Jackson earns his yards the hard way: just carrying the ball over and over and over again. In 2015, his 312 carries were the third highest in college football. Last season, John Moten (6’0” 202 lbs.) came in to spell Jackson and rushed for 340 yards; most importantly, he topped the 100 yard mark mopping up against Purdue and Illinois. A fresher Jackson rushed for more yards last season, and a “less is more” strategy could mean more carries for Moten as a sophomore and more yards for Jackson.

Former walkon Austin Carr exploded last season and led the Big Ten in receiving with 1,247 yards. He’s gone, but Oregon junior transfer Jalen Brown (6’1” 200 lbs.) arrives as a graduate transfer. He had 19 catches for 318 yards and three touchdowns last season, good for fifth for the Ducks last season. Junior Flynn Nagel (5’11” 181 lbs.) leads the returning receivers with 40 catches for 447 yards and two touchdowns. Senior “Superback” (aka a tight end) Garrett Dickerson (6’3” 240 lbs.) caught 34 passes for 318 yards and five touchdowns last season.

Four starters return on the offensive line, and add junior tackle Trey Klock (6’4” 285 lbs) as a transfer from Georgia Tech, where he started seven games. Other than senior center Brad North (6’2” 290 lbs.), it’ll be a line stocked with juniors with starting experience. In Chicago at Big Ten Media Days, NW head coach Pat Fitzgerald made it clear that both tackle positions were open. That means junior left tackle Blake Hance (6’5” 305 lbs.), who’s started 21 games the last two seasons, can’t be presumed to hold his position going into this season.

Northwestern’s defense finished sixth in the Big Ten last season in scoring defense (22.2 points allowed per game) and fifth in rushing defense (139.2 yards per game), but dead last in pass defense (265.2 yards allowed per game). Up front, senior defensive tackle Tyler Lancaster (6’3” 310 lbs.) has been matched with junior defensive tackle Jordan Thompson (6’3” 290 lbs.) on the inside for much of the last two seasons. The big question is who’s going to play defensive end this season. Ifeadi Odenigbo was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings while senior Xavier Washington (6’1” 243 lbs.) has been suspended ever since being arrested in April for possession of a controlled substance. Sophomore Joe Gaziano (6’4” 265 lbs.) had four quarterback hurries and 4.5 sacks as Odenigbo’s backup last season will get the first look at one end.

Junior strongside linebacker Nate Hall (6’2” 230 lbs.) started eight games last season with 73 tackles. But Northwestern needs to find a replacement for fifth round draft pick Anthony Walker at middle linebacker. Originally, it looked like sophomore Nathan Fox (6’2” 245 lbs.) would get first crack, but redshirt freshman Paddy Fisher (6’3” 235 lbs.) has been seeing a lot of time with the first string so far in preseason practice.

The strength of the defense should be the secondary where Northwestern can put a returning starter in every spot. Senior safety Godwin Igwebuike (6’0” 205 lbs.) led the Wildcats with 108 tackles last season, earning him second team all-Big Ten honors. Junior cornerback Montre Hartage (6’0” 190 lbs.) led NW with 14 passes defended. Senior cornerback Keith Watkins (5’11” 187 lbs.) tore his ACL last August; he had 41 tackles and six pass breakups in 2015 as a spot starter. Sophomore Trae Williams (5’11” 200 lbs.) replaced Watkins last season, but has been hampered by a Achilles injury suffered in the spring.

The return of Watkins and Williams should significantly improve NW’s pass defense in 2017, and the returning experience on both sides of the ball has made Northwestern a trendy pick to contend for the Big Ten’s west division title in 2017. Combined with the “road team advantage” in this series, this should be one of those 50/50 key games that defines Nebraska in 2017.