Football: Will the real Northwestern please stand up?


Jacob Swan/Daily Senior Staffer

Justin Jackson charges toward the line against Michigan. The sophomore running back has had an inconsistent season mirroring Northwestern’s success on the field.

Bobby Pillote and Alex Putterman


In Northwestern’s six wins, the team has averaged 332 total yards of offense. In the Wildcats’ two losses, they have averaged 183. In NU’s six wins, the team has averaged 268 total yards allowed. In the Wildcats’ two losses, they have averaged 436. In NU’s six wins, the team has outscored opponents 157-63. In the Wildcats’ two losses, they have been outscored 78-10.

With four games left to determine how NU’s 2015 season is remembered, we ask: will the real Northwestern please stand up?

‘We’re gonna have a problem here’

Sept. 2 — One the eve of the season, The Daily offers its predictions for Northwestern’s season — “The Cats will win games they shouldn’t win, lose games they shouldn’t lose and raise the blood pressure of every NU football fan out there.”

Preseason projections for the Cats weren’t exactly rosy. Four out of five Daily writers pegged NU at 6-6 or 7-5, edging its way into the postseason. ESPN was less optimistic, with most of its writers calling for 6-6 or worse. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports even went as far as labeling the Cats his “most overrated team” in the Big Ten.

“Pat Fitzgerald has done a great job of raising expectations at NU,” Palm wrote in late August, “but they missed out on a bowl last year and will struggle to get to one this season.”

Two months later, the Cats sit at 6-2, in better shape than even the most optimistic prognosticators projected. Even beyond the team’s record, the path NU has taken in 2015 has been anything but predictable.

‘May I have your attention please?’

Sept. 5 — NU shocks Stanford, 16-6 — “What looked to possibly be a rebuilding year for NU is now anything but, with the Cats earning a statement victory over a ranked opponent,” The Daily reported after the game. “If the underclassmen keep outperforming their age, bigger things may be in store for 2015.”

Completing 12-of-24 passes for a measly 105 yards doesn’t sound like a game-winning performance from a quarterback. Eight carries for 68 yards and a touchdown isn’t too stellar either, unless that score happens to be the only touchdown of the game.

In one play — a 42-yard dash past several bewildered Stanford defenders — redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson vaulted from being a shaky freshman in his first start to the savior of the Cats offense, statistics be damned.

NU knocked off a team some considered a national championship contender and raised the question: What is going on in Evanston?

“We had a very average performance as a football team,” Fitzgerald said after the game, taunting a now-enthused fan base with an impressively stoic answer.

Despite the win, NU played ugly and continued to do so in the ensuing weeks, with an offense that was aesthetically unpleasing, to put it kindly. That begins at the quarterback position. Thorson ranks among the worst quarterbacks in the Big Ten, falling second-to-last in yards per attempt and passer rating. Even so, he’s shielded himself from Trevor Siemian-level criticism because of his occasional breathtaking ability, obvious potential and game-winning heroics.

Thorson piloted two 80-yard touchdowns in the third quarter against Ball State to mount a comeback victory, and his two long runs and touchdown heave to senior superback Dan Vitale were undoubtedly the difference in a key win over Nebraska.

But the same quarterback who has helped win the Cats several close games has looked lost more often than not. Thorson turned in a 9-for-23, two-interception performance against Duke, and struggled to complete half his passes against Iowa, accounting for only 125 yards. That the Duke game was a win and the Iowa game a loss says quite a bit: However discouraging the performance, Thorson often finds a way to make it work.

‘Jaws all on the floor’

Oct. 3 — NU beats Minnesota 27-0 — “What it means: It means NU is a legitimate Big Ten West contender,” The Daily wrote after the game.

Sophomore running back Justin Jackson carried 20 times for 120 yards to finish off Minnesota in NU’s Big Ten opener, capping a five game stretch that saw him rush 138 times for 636 yards. In living up to his epithet, The Ball Carrier, Jackson had his workload questioned but continued to grind out positive gains for the Cats whenever called upon.

Jackson was the theoretical cornerstone of a ground-and-pound team, one that could limit the use of its first-year quarterback, batter the opposition into submission with a bevy of talented running backs and let its superb defense do most of the heavy lifting. Everything went just according to plan during a 5-0 start.

But in the three games since that fast start? The sophomore has just 36 carries for 95 yards. On the season, he has only one rushing touchdown. Jackson has disappeared when NU needed him most.

Beyond circumstance — the Cats quickly faced large deficits against the Hawkeyes and Wolverines which necessitated throwing — there’s no apparent cause to Jackson’s dropoff in production. He hasn’t been listed on any injury report and looks fine out on the field, and even a new direct snap wrinkle deployed against the Cornhuskers didn’t jump start him. Keeping the ball on the ground has been NU’s bread and butter in close games, but Jackson’s 14 carries against Nebraska accounted for only half of the Cats’ 28 rushing attempts.

“We want to be perfect every week, but obviously that’s not going to happen,” Jackson said this week. “Sometimes we slip up, we’re not perfect. We just want to go into every week with the confidence and the preparation to win… We know the type of team we are, and that’s really what matters — how we feel about us.”

Regardless of how the team feels, Jackson’s slide in output remains a question mark in a quizzical season.

‘What if you win? Wouldn’t it be weird?’

Oct. 22 — NU loses two straight games by a combined score of 78-10 — “What happened to Northwestern the past two weeks? The answer is as simple as it is demoralizing: The Wildcats just aren’t very good, and they never were,” Daily columnist Bobby Pillote wrote.

Before NU’s midseason skid, thoughts of a return to the Rose Bowl taunted the imagination, only for the identity of the team — the defense — to fall flat on its face in back-to-back games.

NU allowed 35 points through its first five games, then quickly proceeded to more than double that total in the next two. The Michigan quarterback Jake Rudock looked much like the Iowa version that helped torch the Cats’ 48-7 a season ago, and Hawkeyes’ backup running back Akrum Wadley plowed through NU’s overmatched defenders in this year’s game.

To lose was one thing, but to do so inexplicably in such a seemingly uncharacteristic manner was entirely another.

“I don’t think that was us at all,” sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker said. “We got off track a little bit, but we were able to get it turned right around. That Tuesday (after Iowa) in practice we came in with the mindset that we just want to play our ball and control what we can control.”

And though giving up 28 points to Nebraska doesn’t look stellar, the defense slowed the Cornhuskers to an inefficient 5.24 yards per play and produced when it mattered most by denying a potential game-tying 2-point conversion late in the fourth quarter.

Facing Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who has vacillated between awful and awesome in his career, on Saturday is almost certain to extend the roller-coaster ride for the defense.

‘Let’s all stand up’

Nov. 3 — “After just eight games, it’s safe to call NU’s 2015 season a success,” Daily columnist Bobby Pillote wrote.

In spite of an ongoing identity crisis, the Cats secured six wins this season, enough for a return to postseason play after back-to-back seasons of staying home in December.

With four opponents left on the schedule who run the gamut in the tumultuous middle-to-lower tier of the conference — a Penn State team which almost lost to Maryland, perennial doormat Purdue, reigning Big Ten West champion Wisconsin and rival Illinois — there’s no telling which NU will appear for the final third of the season. Now 6-6 is just as much a possibility as 10-2.

But fresh off a bye week, there’s a chance the Cats finally have it all figured out. Maybe the defense regains its footing, Thorson steadies as a consistently good-but-not-great quarterback and the offense recovers with a healthy dose of handoffs to a rested and revitalized Jackson.

There have been plenty of different NU’s lurking this season, and the team’s destiny rides on which one of them stands up.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @BobbyPillote

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @AlexPutterman