#53 Northwestern Football 2016 Preview

Northwestern Wildcats
Overall Rank: #53
#9 Big Ten
Northwestern rode a combination of opportunistic aggressive defense and generated just enough offense to scratch out ten wins last season. Under the direction of head coach Pat Fitzgerald the Wildcats are always going to play hard for 60 minutes, but in the long run it is going to be very important for Northwestern to not have to rely so much on its defense and become a more balanced team in 2016.
2015 Record: 10-3, 6-2
2015 Bowl: Outback Bowl vs. Tennessee (L 6-45)
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (70-56 at Northwestern, 70-56 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Mick McCall
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Justin Jackson, RB, 1,418 yards
Passing: Clayton Thorson, QB, 1,522 yards
Receiving: Austin Carr, WR, 302 yards
Tackles: Anthony Walker, LB, 122
Sacks: Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE, 5.0
Interceptions: Matthew Harris, CB, 4
Other Key Returnees: RB Warren Long, S Godwin Igwebuike, LB Nate Hall, DT Tyler Lancaster
Key Losses: TE Dan Vitale, WR Christian Jones, LB Drew Smith, CB Nick VanHoose, S Traveon Henry, DE Dean Lowrey
Defense will set the tone once again for the Wildcats heading into 2016. They bring plenty of quality out of their group of returning starters on that side of the ball. Anthony Walker is a tremendous playmaker at linebacker and he had 122 tackles last season. The secondary is going to be another strength as they are much more athletic than they have been in previous seasons. This should set up defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz to play plenty of man coverage and, if the defensive line can control the line of scrimmage, it will set up the Northwestern defense to once again keep teams well under 20 points per game in 2016. Justin Jackson is back at running back and he will be looking to equal or surpass his 1,418 yard output on the ground from last season. Jackson’s ability to control things on the ground should give quarterback Clayton Thorson enough time to grow in the passing game.
The Wildcats were anemic offensively last season as they finished 115th in the nation in total offense and 119th in the nation in passing offense. These two numbers have to improve quickly in order for Northwestern to make a run at another ten win season in 2016. Wide receiver is another problem spot. There is not that truly dangerous deep threat that can stretch opposing defenses on a regular basis. Senior Austin Carr is the top returning wide receiver with 302 receiving yards last season. Thus, in an effort to jump start the passing game, Marcus McShepard and Solomon Vault have made the move to wide receiver from defensive back and running back, respectively. If both players can quickly adjust to the wide receiver position, it will make things a lot easier on the offensive unit and it will keep opposing defenses at least a little bit honest.
The Bottom Line:
The schedule is front loaded with home games as Northwestern will not hit the road until October 1st when they travel to reigning Big Ten West champion Iowa. That game, along with road trips to Michigan State and Ohio State in the month of October, are truly going to dictate the direction of the 2016 season. If the Wildcats can stay competitive in all three of the road games and play defense well enough to get these games into the fourth quarter, then Northwestern will be in great position to pull off an upset or two. Bottom line, look for the Wildcats to play a better overall brand of football, but take step back in the win column as they will probably win about eight games in 2016.
Projected Bowl: Quick Lane Bowl
2015 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 188.5 (42nd in nation, 4th in conference)
Passing Offense: 138.5 (119, 14)
Total Offense: 327.1 (115, 14)
Scoring Offense: 19.5 (114, 14)
Rushing Defense: 126.2 (21, 6)
Pass Defense: 192.8 (23, 7)
Total Defense: 318.9 (13, 4)
Scoring Defense: 18.6 (12, 4)
Turnover Margin: 0.08 (61, 8)
Sacks: 2.31 (45, 6)
Sacks Allowed: 2.23 (73, 12)


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