Pillote: Wildcats’ receivers aren’t measuring up to the competition

Bobby Pillote, Gameday Editor


Does Northwestern have the worst group of receivers in the Big Ten?

The hot take after Saturday’s loss to Iowa is yes. Redshirt freshman quarterback Clayton Thorson finished the day completing just 17 of his 35 passes for only 125 yards, in part due to a multitude of mishandles by his pass catchers. Drops aren’t officially kept as a statistic, but qualitatively it’s easy to say the Wildcats’ receivers had trouble holding onto the ball against the Hawkeyes.

And beyond the latest loss, no NU receiver has really impressed this season. It’s easy to blame that on the redshirt freshman under center, but, anecdotally, Thorson has thrown plenty of passes this season that have been on the money and simply not caught.

This was a position group some thought before the season might be a strength. So far it’s turned out to be anything but, though the Cats’ receivers may still not be worst in the 14-team Big Ten.

In answering the question, the conference’s elite teams can be eliminated right away. Ohio State has Braxton Miller, Michael Thomas, Jalin Marshall and basically everyone else on its stacked roster. Michigan has Amara Darboh, Jehu Chesson and Jake Butt. Michigan State has Aaron Burbridge, who leads the Big Ten in receptions and yardage with 44 catches for 702 yards through seven games.

But even lower-profile programs all seem to have at least one wide receiver or tight end who jumps off the stat sheet. Iowa quarterbacks completed just 16 passes Saturday, and eight of them went to Matt VandeBerg. Illinois’ Geronimo Allison just trails Burbridge in receiving yards per game. Nebraska has Jordan Westerkamp and Minnesota has KJ Maye, both of whom rank among the top 11 in the Big Ten in receiving yards.

In fact, every other team in the conference has at least one — in most cases two or three — receiver who averages more yards per game than NU’s leader, senior Dan Vitale. The superback has 221 yards through seven games, good for 29th in the Big Ten.

Compounding the lack of production is some injury misfortune and what seems like a lack of player development, with many receivers on the Cats’ roster curiously anonymous either this year or throughout their careers. Seniors Cameron Dickerson and Pierre Youngblood-Ary combined for 31 catches in 2014, and this year the pair has just two, both by Dickerson. Sophomore Macan Wilson started the season on the two-deep, but hasn’t caught a pass this season and is currently nowhere to be found.

It only gets worse and weirder. Talented freshman Flynn Nagel is hurt and classmate Jelani Roberts is used almost exclusively for jet sweeps. Sophomore superback Jayme Taylor is out for the year. Junior Stephen Buckley emerged as a talented running back his freshman year before tearing his ACL, then moved to receiver post-recovery and has caught just three passes since. Currently filling out the depth chart is senior Garrett Kidd, a graduate transfer from Miami who caught just two passes as a Hurricane.

Overall NU has the worst passing offense in the Big Ten, an almost inarguable fact given the Cats rank dead last in the conference in passing yards per game and yards per passing attempt. The quarterback has to shoulder some of the blame, but his receivers definitely aren’t helping.

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