#31 Northwestern 2018 Football Preview

Northwestern Wildcats
Overall Rank: #31
#6 Big Ten
 Northwestern Logo
Northwestern quickly faded from the Big Ten West title race after starting the conference season 0-2. However, the Wildcats reeled off eight straight wins, including a victory over Kentucky in the Music City Bowl. That is a lot of momentum Coach Pat Fitzgerald’s team is carrying into the 2018 campaign.
2017 Record: 10-3, 7-2
2017 Bowl: Music City Bowl vs. Kentucky (W 24-23)
Coach: Pat Fitzgerald (87-65 at Northwestern, 87-65 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Mick McCall
Defensive Coordinator: Mike Hankwitz
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Jeremy Larkin, RB, 503 yards
Passing: Clayton Thorson, QB, 2,844 yards
Receiving: Bennett Skowronek, WR, 644 yards
Tackles: Paddy Fisher, LB, 113
Sacks: Joe Gaziano, DE, 9.0
Interceptions: Montre Hartage, CB, 3
Other Key Returnees: WR Flynn Nagel, OL Tommy Doles, LB Nate Hall, DE Samdup Miller
Key Losses: RB Justin Jackson, SB Garrett Dickerson, DT Tyler Lancaster, S Godwin Igwebuike, S Kyle Queiro, LB Brett Walsh
Some of that momentum from last year went away when quarterback Clayton Thorson tore an ACL during the Music City Bowl. However, he is on schedule to return for the opening game against Purdue on August 30th. Last season Thorson threw for 2,844 yards and 15 touchdowns, while adding eight more touchdowns on the ground. Bennett Skowronek and Flynn Nagel are back after leading the team in receptions in 2017. Solomon Vault is also back after missing the 2017 season with an injury and the Wildcats may have found a productive superback in Cameron Green. The potential problem is replacing Justin Jackson at running back. He was an amazingly consistent running back during his four seasons in Evanston. However, Jeremy Larkin rushed for 503 yards on just 84 carries as Jackson’s backup last year and the sophomore should have a big year behind an experienced offensive line.
The Wildcats were great against the run last year and they will hope to do that again despite the loss of space eating tackle Tyler Lancaster. Jordan Thompson should be able to fill that role and the rest of the interior line is full of experienced depth. The line gets even better on the ends where Samdup Miller and Joe Gaziano return after combining for 14.5 sacks in 2017. The linebackers will be led by Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall. Fisher led the team with 113 tackles and Hall added 79. Beyond those two though, Northwestern does have concerns at linebacker. The secondary has some holes to fill, but cornerback Montre Hartage is one of the best in the Big Ten. The return of a handful of injured players should help replace safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro.
The Bottom Line:
If Thorson is indeed healthy, this Northwestern squad should at least reach their fourth straight bowl game. Even if Thorson does miss some time, this group will go bowling. With a fully healthy and productive Thorson, the Wildcats could have another ten win season. With games against Michigan and Michigan State in back-to-back weeks starting on September 29th, the Big Ten West title could again be out of reach early in the year. The back end of the schedule is easier outside of home dates with Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
Projected Bowl: TaxSlayer Bowl
2017 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 174.2 (52nd in nation, 5th in conference)
Passing Offense: 233.8 (64, 6)
Total Offense: 408.0 (55, 4)
Scoring Offense: 29.2 (56, 4)
Rushing Defense: 107.7 (9, 4)
Pass Defense: 249.5 (100, 14)
Total Defense: 357.2 (34, 8)
Scoring Defense: 20.1 (20, 7)
Turnover Margin: 0.54 (26, 2)
Sacks: 2.46 (31, 6)
Sacks Allowed: 2.38 (86, 9)
Madness 2019 NFL Draft Rankings:
#69 Clayton Thorson