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Previewing the 2018 Northwestern Wildcats

Nebraska’s pass defense will be tested this week, as NW really struggles to run the ball.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Michigan State
This would be a great week for the Huskers to get their pass rush turned around.
Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern impressed many by opening the season 31-27 victory at Purdue, but then stumbled by losing at home to 4-1 Duke and 2-2 Akron. The last two weeks, though, the Wildcats scared Michigan 20-17 in a game that NW led most of the day and then upset Michigan State 29-19 last Saturday.

Quarterback Clayton Thorson has started all five games for Northwestern, completing over 62% of his passes, averaging 260 yards per game with six touchdowns and five interceptions on the season. Thorson’s top receiving targets are receivers Flynn Nagel (36 catches, 402 yards) and Bennett Skowronek (22 catches, 257 yards, one touchdown) and “superback” Cameron Green (26 catches, 259 yards, three touchdowns).

It’s a good thing that Northwestern’s passing attack has worked, because the ground game has completely stalled. Each week, Northwestern has rushed for fewer yards than the week before: 166 yards against Purdue, 99 against Duke, 86 against Akron, only 28 against Michigan, and just eight yards (on 20 carries) against Michigan State. Two weeks ago, starting running back Jeremy Larkin had to give up football after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis, and the Wildcats haven’t figure out a replacement between John Moten IV (57 yards this season), Solomon Vault (24 yards), Drake Anderson (12 yards) and Isaiah Bowser (2 yards). Earlier this week, head coach Pat Fitzgerald said “It’s amazing when you go from the all-time leading rusher (Justin Jackson) to yuck.” Not sure I’d go as far as “yuck”, but it’s clear that Northwestern is struggling to run the ball.

Defensively, the Wildcats are in the bottom half of the Big Ten in just about every defensive statistic: 8th in scoring defense (25.2 pts. per game), 10th in total defense (388 yards per game), 7th in rushing defense (133 yards per game), 11th in pass defense (255 yards per game) and 12th in pass efficiency defense. But there is one stat the Wildcats lead the Big Ten in, and that’s penalties with just 15 for 171 yards this season. That’s a third of Nebraska’s totals.

Linebackers Blake Gallagher and Paddy Fisher lead the Wildcats in tackles with 49 and 39 respectively. Safeties J.R. Pace and Jared McGee each have 32 tackles this season. On pass defense, cornerback Montre Hardage and Pace have broken up seven and five passes this season respectively. Defensive end Joe Gaziano continues to be the guy to keep an eye on up front, with 3.5 sacks and 6.5 total tackles for a loss; he also has six of NW’s 13 quarterback hurries this season.

Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten, this series has had the odd pattern of the visiting team winning every game, other than 2013’s RK3-to-1 Hail Mary game in Lincoln. The Huskers are a perfect 3-0 in Evanston, with the games being played in front of a sizeable crowd of fans wearing red.

So what streak ends Saturday? Nebraska’s nine game losing streak, or NU’s three game winning street on NW’s home field? (Sadly, Cub fans Scott Frost and Matt Davison won’t have a reason to stop by Wrigley the night before the game, now that the Cubs were eliminated in the NL Wild Card game.) Below the jump, check out the rest of the preseason preview of the Northwestern Wildcats.

Northwestern just did it again last season. The Big Ten’s little engine that could hit double-digit wins for the third time in the last six years. CFN’s Pete Fiutak put that in perspective: in the Big Ten, only Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State have done that. Over the last fifty years, the Wildcats have only had 12 winning seasons.

Half of those have been in the last ten seasons with Pat Fitzgerald as head coach.

After the second week of the 2017 season though, Northwestern looked more like a ten loss team than anything else. 3-9 Nevada led NW with six minutes left in the season opener, then Duke pasted them 49-17. But three straight overtime victories (over justIowa, Michigan State, and a football team in Lincoln being held hostage) sparked a seven game winning streak to close out the season.

That final victory, 24-23 over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, came at a huge cost as quarterback Clayton Thorson (6’4” 226 lbs.) tore his ACL. Offseason surgery was successful, and Thorson is expected to be ready for his senior season. If he’s not, the Wildcats are looking at playing someone who’s never taken a snap in a college game, probably either junior T.J. Green (6’2” 199 lbs., son of former Kansas City Chief Trent Green) or sophomore Aidan Smith (6’2” 205 lbs.). Thorson’s junior campaign didn’t improve significantly over his previous two seasons. He completed 60% of his passes for 2,844 yards, 15 touchdowns but 12 interceptions. With his knee still in rehabilitation, look for Thorson to be much less of a dual-threat quarterback than during his first couple of years. To be honest, though, Thorson’s legs were really only a threat against Nebraska. He’s rushed for 518 yards in his career, with 192 of those coming in his three games against the Huskers. (For all of the criticism of Bob Diaco, Nebraska was more successful stopping Thorson in 2017 than the two previous seasons under Mark Banker.)

The Justin Jackson era at NW is finally over after four straight 1,000 yard seasons. But what the Wildcats lose in durability, the Wildcats might actually gain in productivity. Sophomore Jeremy Larkin (5’10” 194 lbs.) rushed for 503 yards and five touchdowns on just 84 carries. His 6.0 yards per carry average was a 33% improvement over Jackson’s over the years. Backing up Larkin will be junior John Moten IV (6’0” 202 lbs.) and sophomore Jesse Brown (5’11” 197 lbs.) Injuries limited Moten (and created an opening for Larkin) last season, as Moten was limited to 17 caries for 55 yards. As a freshman, Moten rushed for 340 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Brown only carried the ball nine times last season, but averaged 7.1 yards per carry and scored twice.

Part of the reason that Thorson struggled at quarterback last year was due to inexperienced receivers, especially after Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown (6’1” 195 lbs.) only played in three games due to injury. He’s back, along with junior Bennett Skowronek (6’4” 218 lbs.) and senior Flynn Nagel (5’11” 192 lbs.). Skowronek led the team in receiving yards (644) and touchdowns (5) on 45 catches, while Nagel added 48 catches (team lead) for 489 yards and two touchdowns. In 2016 at Oregon, Brown caught 19 passes for 318 yards and three touchdowns. Junior “superback” (NW’s term for a tight end) Cameron Green (6’3” 230 lbs.) moves into a starting role after catching 20 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns as a reserve last season. Brown’s return should definitely improve Northwestern’s passing game if Thorson is recovered enough this season.

Four starters return on the offensive line, led by third team all-Big Ten right guard Tommy Doles (6’4” 290 lbs.), a three year starter. Sophomore right tackle Rashawn Slater (6’3” 290 lbs.) started twelve of thirteen games last season as a true freshman. While Northwestern’s rushing game improved as last season went on, pass protection was an issue all season long. That’s something that offensive line assistant Adam Cushing HAS to get figured out this offseason. Protecting Thorson’s repaired knee (and not asking him to run for his life) has to be the Wildcat offensive line’s top priority in 2018. Being ninth (or worse) in the Big Ten in sacks allowed again in 2018 would be an ominous sign, and would likely mean that one of Northwestern’s green quarterbacks would have to replace Thorson at some point this season.

Northwestern finished in the middle of the Big Ten in just about every defensive category except one: pass defense, where NW’s 249.5 yards allowed average was the worst in the conference. That can be blamed on injuries in the secondary, starting with former NFL prospect Keith Walters, who tore one ACL in preseason 2016 and then the other last August. Cornerback Trae Williams (60” 212 lbs.) was limited to just three games last season due to an Achilles injury. He’s back for his junior season; as a freshman, he started nine games with 42 tackles, eight passes defended and five interceptions. Senior cornerback Montre Hartage (6’0” 196 lbs.) took advantage of Walters absence to become a starter, accumulating 57 tackles, seven pass breakups and three interceptions last season. At safety, senior Jared McGee (6’1” 220 lbs.) will have to step up into a starting role after a 27 tackle season as backup. The rest of the safety corps is completely untested; sophomore J.R. Pace (6’1” 190 lbs.) played in all 12 games as a true freshman in spot duty with four tackles. His two interceptions should be a sign of potential, though.

Three starters return on the Wildcats defensive line. Junior defensive end Joe Gaziano (6’4” 280 lbs.) was a second team all-Big Ten honoree last season with nine sacks and 12 quarterback hurries. Sophomore Samdup Miller (6’3” 260 lbs.) added 32 tackles, 5.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries as a true freshman last season. Senior defensive tackle Jordan Thompson (6’3” 290 lbs.) has been a two year starter who had 26 tackles 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hurries last season. Junior Alex Miller (6’3” 280 lbs.) will slide into a starting role after notching 22 tackles, two sacks and three quarterback hurries as a backup last season. Northwestern’s defensive line was solid last season, and looks like they could be even better in 2018.

Last season, Northwestern had to replace most of their linebacking corps, but it turned out to be a plug-and-play situation. Middle linebacker Paddy Fisher (6’4” 245 lbs.) had a tremendous freshman season, leading the team with 113 tackles to earn second team all-Big Ten honors. Against Michigan State, his 22 tackle afternoon with two forced fumbles earned him Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week honors. Senior strongside linebacker Nate Hall was the lone returner last season; he was second on the team with 79 tackles, with a team-leading 15.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. At weakside linebacker, sophomore Blake Gallagher (6’1” 224 lbs.) looks to get the first look after contributing 33 tackles as a freshman reserve.

The battle between NU and NW as conference rivals continues to result in the strangest trend: the road team has won six out of the seven matchups. The only home team victory? The 2013 RK3-to-1 Hail Mary from Ron Kellogg to Jordan Westerkamp. Good news for the Huskers: this year’s game is in Evanston. Who knows, maybe Scott Frost and Matt Davison can sneak over to Wrigley for game one of the NLCS the night before.