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Scouting Northwestern: Breaking down the Wildcats

October 11, 2018

Location: Evanston, Illinois.

Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (89-68, 13th season).

Record: 2-3, 2-1 Big Ten.

Rankings: None.

OFFENSIVE RATING: 3

Offensive averages / national rank

Points

23.6 / 106

Total yards

371.2 / 95

Rushing yards

77.4 / 127

Passing yards

293.8 / 22

DEFENSIVE RATING: 4

Defensive averages / national rank

Points

25.2 / 60

Total yards

388.2 / 72

Rushing yards

133.0 / 46

Passing yards

255.2 / 102

SPECIALISTS RATING: 4

Special-teams averages / national rank

Kickoff returns

22.1 / 52

Punt returns

5.8 / 97

Net punting

37.3 / 74

Why you may need Rolaids

1. Would you be surprised to learn Northwestern is 9-1 in its last 10 Big Ten games? The Wildcats are. The only loss came a couple of weeks ago against Michigan, a game Northwestern led 17-0 before forgetting how to play offense for the final 30 minutes. The stretch includes a pair of wins over ranked Michigan State teams, a victory over Iowa and last year’s overtime win in Lincoln when the Wildcats essentially ran the ball down Nebraska’s throat in the extra period. It’s generally not real pretty when Northwestern plays, but it has been effective in the league.

2. Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson appears to be back to 100 percent health after recovering from a knee injury. Northwestern’s run game is virtually nonexistent, but Thorson is talented and experienced enough to give Nebraska’s secondary plenty of trouble. He threw for 373 yards against Michigan State, and is the only quarterback in the Big Ten with two games of 350-plus passing yards this season. That includes Penn State’s Trace McSorley, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and Purdue’s David Blough. Thorson needs 152 more passing yards to join former Ohio State star J.T. Barrett as the only players in Big Ten history with 9,000 career passing yards and 20 career rushing touchdowns.

3. Northwestern doesn’t beat itself. The Wildcats have the fewest penalties in the nation through five games, with just 16 total flags. As you might know, that’s about a game and half’s worth of work for Nebraska. Northwestern averaged 3.2 penalties per game, and its 171 total penalty yards are only slightly more than what the Huskers have had in a couple of games this season.

[ Offensive coordinator Troy Walters talks about Northwestern ]

Why you might chill

1. Nebraska lost at Northwestern just once, and that came back in 1931. Now, the Huskers haven’t won anywhere this season, but this isn’t exactly like going into the Big House or Camp Randall Stadium. Nebraska’s last two trips to the Chicago area have resulted in double-digit wins — 38-17 in 2014, and 24-13 in 2016. Nebraska was ranked 19th and 20th, respectively, in those games, and is decidedly not ranked this season. However, there still figures to be plenty of red in the stands in a place that has historically been pretty friendly to Big Red.

2. Nebraska’s best bet might be try and turn the game into a shootout. Clayton Thorson is good, but we’re talking about a Northwestern offense that, before last week, had been outscored 59-13 after halftime. If Nebraska has it close or, gasp, has a lead at the break, and has to force Northwestern to play from behind, one would like Nebraska’s chances with an offense that has begun to find its footing. Even if it’s Nebraska playing from behind, Northwestern’s complete lack of a running threat means the Huskers should get plenty of chances with the ball.

3. If there is one thing Pat Fitzgerald’s teams do, it is play to the level of their competition. This is a team that, just this season, has lost to Akron, come from way back to edge Purdue, blown a big lead against No. 14 Michigan, and gotten past Michigan State despite rushing for just 8 yards. One guarantee when it comes to Big Ten football is that whatever game Northwestern is playing in will probably be close. It will take Nebraska limiting the number of times it trips over its own feet, but the Huskers will likely have a shot late.

[ Two-Minute Drill: Starting fast against the Wildcats ]

By the numbers

0.67

Yards per carry for Northwestern’s offense since starting tailback Jeremy Larkin retired for medical reasons. The Wildcats rushed for 28 yards on 34 carries against Michigan, 8 yards on 20 carries against Michigan State. But those performances came against the nation’s No. 6 and No. 1 rush defenses.

23

Consecutive games with a catch for Northwestern receiver Flynn Nagel. That’s the second-longest streak in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s K.J. Hill.

0

The number of home wins for Northwestern this season. The Wildcats are 0-3 at home, 2-0 and the road, and have won five straight road games dating to last season. Northwestern was 6-1 at home in 2017.

Press coverage

Louie Vaccher covers Northwestern for Wildcat Report.

Is there any way to put a finger on why NU is 0-3 at home and 2-0 on the road?

Not really. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and defensive end Joe Gaziano both addressed the home vs. away issue during Monday’s press conference, and neither one of them really had an answer. They just chalk it up to coincidence. “It’s been weird because you expect to play better at home, in front of your home crowd, but for us that hasn’t been the case,” said Gaziano. “But I think just kind of the way the dice have rolled this year.” What makes this an even bigger issue this week is that the home team is just 1-6 in this series. That’s even more remarkable when you consider that the one home win was a fluke — Nebraska’s Hail Mary on the last play of the game in 2013. Other than that, the visitors have owned the home team. Fitzgerald couldn’t really explain that one, either, figuring the reason may be because so many of the games were close ones that could have gone either way. So there will be a little pressure on Northwestern to win one in front of the home fans this year, as well as claim its first win against the Huskers at Ryan Field.

Jeremy Larkin’s retirement obviously stinks, for him and the team. Is there hope for Northwestern to find a consistent running game the second half of the season?

They have to figure something out. As Fitzgerald so eloquently put it on Monday, “We kinda suck at running the ball right now,” noting that the Wildcats have gone from all-time leading rusher Justin Jackson the last four years to “yuck” this year. Northwestern’s rushing numbers the last two weeks without Larkin have been as ugly as the Brett Kavanaugh hearings: 36 total yards on a combined 54 carries, though that was against two very good defenses in Michigan and Michigan State and includes losses from sacks. We’ll find out this week just how much of that struggle was due to the opponent and how much was due to execution: Nebraska ranks 13th in the Big Ten and 109th in the nation against the run. Something has to give.

NU led Purdue by 14, Akron by 18 and Michigan by 17, yet lost two of those three games and let Purdue make things tight in the second half. What has been behind the second-half struggles?

Well, that’s what happens when your offense doesn’t show up in the second half. Before the Michigan State game last Saturday, Northwestern’s offense had scored second-half points in just one of its first four games, against Akron. Think about that: Against Purdue, Duke and Michigan, the Wildcats didn’t score a single point in the third or fourth quarters, getting outscored 23-0. Throw in the Akron game and they were outscored 59-13 in the second halves of their games. It’s impressive that they were able to win one of those four games. Against Michigan State, Northwestern fell behind in the third quarter and you could almost hear the fan base rolling their eyes and muttering, “Here we go again.” But, behind a brilliant performance by Clayton Thorson, the Wildcats finally found their second-half mojo and put 15 points on the board to seal the win. It was the first time this season that Northwestern outscored an opponent in the second half.

Clayton Thorson had his best game of the season against Michigan State. Is he back to 100 percent healthwise? What hurdles did he have to clear between the first game of the season and now?

I think that after last week’s showing — he went 31-of-47 for 373 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions — we can say that Thorson is at 100 percent, or pretty darn close. He has looked better each week this year and you can really see him driving off that leg now. Northwestern coaches let him roll out to move the pocket last week, something we rarely saw in previous games, when most of the running he did was to save his life. Coaches brought Thorson along slowly this season. He split time about 50-50 with backup TJ Green (son of Trent Green) in the opener against Purdue. They slowly increased his load the next two games to the point where he played all but a couple series against Akron. He played his first game whistle-to-whistle against Michigan and then did it again on Saturday. Now, I don’t think we’ll see another QB in the game unless they are using a Wildcat, he is injured or it’s garbage time.

Just how impressive is the new practice facility? We see the pictures and read the stories here. But what is it like to see everything up close? Is it the type of thing that can take Northwestern football to the next level?

Honestly, all the pictures and video you’ve seen doesn’t do it justice. It’s unbelievable. The “Fitz Carlton” has it all — a spectacular domed practice field, an enormous weight room, a locker room that could double as a night club, a 40-person hot tub (seriously), a virtual reality room and a player’s lounge straight out of a science fiction movie. And it all sits on the shores of Lake Michigan, with floor-to-ceiling views of the waves rolling onto the beach and the Chicago skyline in the distance. As Fitzgerald put it, there may be bigger facilities in the country, but there are none nicer. The goal of that $270 million, glass-and-steel palace is to take Northwestern to that next level as a program. Eye candy like that, the thinking goes, will attract the four- or five-star recruits that didn’t consider Northwestern in the past. Fitzgerald has won 10 games three times in the last six years and gotten the program to the point where a bowl game is expected every year. The next step is to win a West division or Big Ten title. It remains to be seen if the Ryan Fieldhouse and Walter Athletics Center (there are sponsors for just about every room, it seems) can get them there.

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