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2017 Big Ten football preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) evades Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Chris Worley (35) in the first quarter of their game at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 29, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. Credit: Courtesy of TNS

Big Ten preview: Northwestern Wildcats

Location: Evanston, Illinois

2016 Record: 7-6 (5-4 in Big Ten)

Head Coach: Pat Fitzgerald

2017 Record So Far: 1-1

All-time record vs. OSU: 14-61

 

What has happened thus far in 2017

Northwestern started off the season strong with a 31-20 victory against Nevada. The Wildcats were tested more than expected, but junior quarterback Clayton Thorson added two late rushing touchdowns in the final 5:29 of the game to seal the comeback victory. The following week, the Wildcats were defeated by Duke in dominating fashion, losing 41-17. The Blue Devils scored 20 unanswered points to put Northwestern away in the second half.

Impact Player

The offense relies on star senior running back Justin Jackson. Jackson ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons, and earned a first team All-Big Ten spot last season by the media. Jackson reached personal highs in yards per carry, total yards and touchdowns last year. He also is just 229 yards away from breaking Northwestern’s all-time rushing yard record (4,485). Jackson has had a slower start this year, with only 127 rushing yards on 37 carries and one touchdown through two games, but he will still be expected to carry the offense if the Wildcats are going to repeat the success they had in 2015.

Strengths

Jackson is a clear strength on offense, as not only has he performed well every season since his freshman year, he has played in every game for the past three seasons. Thorson has shown glimmers of greatness, like when he completed 28-of-38 passes for 352 yards against Nevada in Week 1, and the Wildcats will need more games like that if they are to succeed in the Big Ten. Northwestern had a strong defense last year that ranked 12th in the nation in scoring, and was led by now-Indianapolis Colts linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. The Wildcats have the potential to continue that success this season with senior safety Godwin Igwebuike showing the most promise to lead the defense, as he racked up 108 tackles last season.

Weaknesses

Consistency is a big weakness as the first two games of the 2017 season have shown how different this Northwestern team can look on any given night. Four starters are back for Northwestern’s offensive line, but they gave up 39 sacks and 95 tackles for loss last year, so they will need to be much improved to help Thorson find more of a rhythm this season.

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