#64 Northwestern Football 2015 Preview

Northwestern Wildcats

Overall Rank: #64
#12 Big Ten

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Northwestern has missed out on bowl games for the last two years. For a program that was a bowl regular for the previous five campaigns, another bad season is not acceptable. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has done great things with the Wildcats, but it is time to find that spark that can turn a 5-7 season into a 7-5 season. Running back Justin Jackson can provide that spark. As a freshman last year, he ran for 1,187 yards and ten touchdowns. More importantly, he looked really good doing it. Jackson has the strength and burst to be a great Big Ten back.

2014 Record: 5-7, 3-5
2014 Bowl: None
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (60-53 at Northwestern, 60-53 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Mick McCall
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz

Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Justin Jackson, RB, 1,187 yards
Passing: Zack Oliver, QB, 367 yards
Receiving: Dan Vitale, TE, 402 yards
Tackles: Traveon Henry, S, 73
Sacks: Dean Lowry, DE, 4.0
Interceptions: Godwin Igwebuike, S, 3

Other Key Returnees: WR Cameron Dickerson, WR Miles Shuler, WR Christian Jones, K Jack Mitchell, CB Matthew Harris, CB Nick VanHoose, LB Anthony Walker

Key Losses: QB Trevor Siemian, RB Treyvon Green, WR Kyle Prater, WR Tony Jones, OL Brandon Vitabile, LB Chi Chi Ariguzo, S Ibraheim Campbell, LB Jimmy Hall

Northwestern won games in large part due to the defense forcing turnovers. The team was 0-5 when they forced one or fewer turnovers. Safety Godwin Igwebuike had a great freshman campaign and picked off three passes. Traveon Henry, Matthew Harris and Nick VanHoose also return to their starting spots in the secondary. VanHoose is a great talent and has proven time and time again that he can take on the best receivers the Big Ten has to offer. Sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker will take over the leadership role in the middle of the defense after the graduation of leading tackler Chi Chi Ariguzo. Walker can create turnovers too and is a smart and quick presence in the middle of the field. The line has plenty of experience, but Northwestern barely had a pass rush last year. Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson are the likely starters again, but keep an eye on sophomore Xavier Washington and junior Ifeadi Odenigbo. Odenigbo forced three fumbles and added 3.0 sacks in 2014.

Outside of Jackson, the offense has questions that Coach Fitzgerald needs to address. For the first time in a while, Northwestern has a quarterback controversy. Senior Zack Oliver has been a backup for a long time and has the experience. However, both sophomore Matt Alviti and freshman Clayton Thorson did not back down during the spring. This is Oliver’s job to lose and he probably will not lose it between now and the beginning of the season. He should have plenty of decent targets to work in the passing game. Northwestern does not need a go-to-receiver to be successful, but they really missed Christian Jones last year. Back in 2013, Jones caught 54 passes for 668 yards and four touchdowns. Miles Shuler and Cameron Dickerson are proven targets. Dan Vitale has been a steady receiver from his “superback” position. All that potential could be wasted for the most part though if Northwestern cannot settle on a quarterback who can be more efficient than Trevor Siemian was last year.

The Bottom Line:
The Big Ten West is the easier of the two divisions and Northwestern’s crossover games this year are against Michigan and Penn State. It certainly could have been worse than that. Non-conference games against Stanford and Duke (the others are versus Eastern Illinois and Ball State) leave little margin for error, but home games against Minnesota, Iowa, Penn State and Purdue are all winnable. So is the game at the Big House and the neutral site contest against Illinois. Seven wins is certainly feasible and six is the goal, but Northwestern has made a habit of falling apart lately and this group needs to prove that they can take some shots and get back up.

Projected Bowl: None

2014 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 136.6 (100th in nation, 11th in conference)
Passing Offense: 216.5 (76, 8)
Total Offense: 353.1 (104, 10)
Scoring Offense: 23.0 (98, 12)
Rushing Defense: 169.9 (70, 7)
Pass Defense: 214.3 (42, 8)
Total Defense: 384.3 (53, 9)
Scoring Defense: 25.2 (47, 7)
Turnover Margin: 0.33 (40, 4)
Sacks: 1.42 (106, 14)
Sacks Allowed: 2.83 (101, 11)


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