No. 24 Northwestern
Northwestern has 11 Big Ten victories over the last two seasons, their highest two-year total since 1995-96.
They have arguably the best depth of the Pat Fitzgerald era and return 15 starters, including quarterback Clayton Thorson and running back Justin Jackson on offense and safety Godwin Igwebuike on defense.
2016 Record: 7-6 (5-4, Big Ten)
After starting the season 1-3 — including a vomit-inducing 9-7 home loss to Illinois State — the Wildcats rebounded to win six of their final nine games.
While Northwestern has now won five Big Ten games in consecutive seasons (six in 2015) for just the second time under Pat Fitzgerald, their losses were equally notable. They trailed Wisconsin 13-7 in the fourth quarter and lost to Ohio State by four points.
Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (12th year, 77-62 overall)
Longtime coach Pat Fitzgerald failed to duplicate his 10-win 2015 campaign but he did win seven games, matching the highest two-year total in 11 years at his alma mater. Fitzgerald is still chasing both his first Big Ten West title and first conference championship, something the Wildcats won't achieve with another rough September.
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‘‘We were really inconsistent in the first month,’’ Fitzgerald said at Big Ten media days. ‘‘I take that responsibility on my shoulders. We were banged up at the end of camp, and I took my foot off the pedal to get us to the season. I’m not gonna let what happened last year happen again.’’
He signed a contract extension in April that runs through the 2026 season.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Clayton Thorson, RB Justin Jackson, WR Flynn Nagel, TE Garrett Dickerson, OT Blake Hance, G Tommy Doles
For much of the offseason, Pat Fitzgerald has refused to talk about their strong finish to 2016. They won three of their final four and the offense finally found a groove, scoring 31 or more in the three wins, including two games with 42 or more.
Why won't he use those games as a reason for optimism? Because their offense was mostly atrocious in the nine prior games. They did score 92 combined points in wins over Iowa and Michigan State but failed to top 24 in the other seven games, averaging just 16.6 points.
The quest toward consistency starts with Justin Jackson (below), though he's hardly had consistency issues in three season. The senior already has 4,219 career rushing yards and 30 touchdowns.
Garrett Dickerson is back at superback — Northwestern's hybrid fullback/tight end position — and should flirt with 40 catches. He and new No. 1 receiver Flynn Nagel will be quarterback Clayton Thorson's top targets. Thorson had a breakout sophomore campaign, improving his completion percentage by nearly eight points, yards per attempt by 1.5 yards and touchdown-to-interception ratio from 0.78-to-1 to 2.44-to-1.
The offensive line returns four starters, including all-conference honorable mention guard Tommy Doles and junior tackle Blake Hence, both of whom know the offense goes when they go.
“We saw last year, when we played well, the offense played well,” Hance said in February. “We put up 50 points against Michigan State because the O-line played well; we ran the ball, then we could throw it over their heads. These six games, we played awesome and we scored a lot of points and won, and these six games, we didn’t really play that well and you saw what happened.”
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Tyler Lancaster, DE Joe Gaziano, DE Xavier Washington, LB Nate Hall, CB Montre Hartage, CB Keith Watkins II, S Godwin Igwebuike, S Kyle Quiero
Northwestern ranked 109th nationally and dead last in the Big Ten in pass defense, yielding 265.2 yards per game. Ignore that. The Wildcats have one of the best secondaries in the conference.
They return four upperclassmen with starting experience, including Keith Watkins II, who missed all of 2016 with a knee injury. He had 41 tackles and six passes defended as a sophomore in 2015.
"[H]e’s an All-Big Ten level player, he’s an NFL player," Fitzgerald said of Watkins (below), who was limited in spring practice. "I think he’s really hungry to get back out there. What does it mean for this year? It means that we get a dude back, I mean we get a great player back. Anytime you got competition man, it gives us an opportunity to have some strength."
Watkins joins Montre Hartage, Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro, the latter three of whom combined for nine interceptions and 22 passes defended for a unit that allowed just 22.2 points per game (24th in the FBS).
Up front, Northwestern lost their most disruptive player in end Ifeadi Odenigbo and suspended Xavier Washington indefinitely after he was arrested on felony drug charges in May. His status remains unclear. Still, they return tackle Tyler Lancaster and end Joe Gaziano.
"I have a good first step, and I’m quick off the ball, so I’m able to play end, and I’m able to chase down a running back or quarterback because I’ve got that speed,” Gaziano said last year. “But also I have the ability to play low to the ground and take on blocks well and be stout on the inside.”
Nate Hall is the lone returning starting linebacker. He had 73 stops and six tackles for loss last year.
Notable Player Losses
WR Austin Carr, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB Anthony Walker Jr
Northwestern lost an all-conference player on both sides of the ball, Big Ten Receiver of the Year Austin Carr and linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. After registering 23 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns in his first three seasons combined, Carr exploded for 90 receptions, 1,247 yards and 12 scores, ranking among the nation's best in each category. He was not selected in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Walker, however, was a fifth-round pick of the Colts, and defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo was taken by the Vikings in the seventh round. The pair combined for 22 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.
Notable Player Additions
WR Jalen Brown, OT Gunnar Vogel, LB Jango Glackin, LB Paddy Fisher,
In some ways, Pat Fitzgerald run Northwestern as a service academy or Ivy League program lite. He rarely relies on true freshmen and transfers, which will be the case again in 2017.
One redshirt freshman, however, is in line to start. Gunnar Vogel, a 6-foot-6, 286-pounder is a former three-star recruit from Columbus who should officially win the starting right tackle spot during camp.
Defensively, two more redshirt freshman are competing for significant playing time, linebackers Jango Glackin and Paddy Fisher.
“We’ll see how things progress with the group,” Fitzgerald said of his linebackers. “As we sit here right now, that’s going to be a great competition between Nathan (Fox) and Paddy (Fisher), and we’ll see how that unfolds as camp goes on.”
Also keep an eye on Oregon transfer Jalen Brown at receiver. He was a late addition to the spring roster.
Northwestern's opener against Nevada got a little easier after the transfer of Wolfpack running back James Butler — though they'll still see Butler a month later with his new team, Iowa.
The Wildcats face Wisconsin and Penn State in consecutive weeks an don't have back-to-back home games until Oct. 21 (Iowa) and Oct. 28 (Michigan State).
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. Nevada|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Duke|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Bowling Green|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Wisconsin|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Penn State|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Maryland|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||vs. Iowa|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Michigan State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Nebraska|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Purdue|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Minnesota|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Illinois|