Northwestern's turnaround sparked by rejuvenated offense
What a difference three weeks can make.
After an 11-point home loss to Nebraska on Sept. 24 dropped Northwestern to 1-3, a seventh bowl game under head coach Pat Fitzgerald looked unlikely for 2016. Sure, the Wildcats were only a third of the way through their schedule. But a dreadful 9-7 home loss to FCS Illinois State (who is now 3-4) had already stained their resume, and there seemed to be little reason for optimism.
Long viewed as a program that “won ugly,” Northwestern was beginning to lose ugly with a weakened defense and an offense that appeared inept through four games.
Still, Northwestern players put forward an attitude, at least in press conferences, that portrayed a confidence in themselves and in what they were working toward.
“There’s a lot of negative things that are always being said when you lose,” quarterback Clayton Thorson told reporters aft the 0-2 start. “(Blocking that out) starts with trusting in each other and believing in each other. And we do.”
You’d be forgiven for remaining unconvinced that a turnaround was likely at the time. Following the home loss to the Huskers, Northwestern’s next two games were on the road against last season’s Big Ten Championship Game participants in Iowa and Michigan State. The outlook seemed bleak, but the Wildcats knocked off Iowa 38-31 and pounded the Spartans 54-40 Saturday in East Lansing.
Then the Wildcats offense came alive. In a matter of weeks, the three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust strategy that that we’ve come to expect from Northwestern has been replaced by a multi-faceted attack complete with multiple dangerous playmakers. Suddenly the Cats are 3-3, having secured both their first win over Iowa and first 50-point performance since 2012 in the process.
Running back Justin Jackson entered his junior season knowing it would be his third as the centerpiece of Fitzgerald’s offense, and his workhorse role hasn’t diminished with 698 rushes on 143 carries across just six games. But unlike his first two seasons in the backfield, the Cats now have a legitimate passing threat that is both easing the offensive burden on Jackson and complementing the run game.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson and senior wide receiver Austin Carr have emerged as consistent threats, and their newfound downfield connection has helped forge a three-headed monster on offense during the Wildcats’ resurgence this season.
Jackson has always been a weapon, logging more carries than all but two college backs in 2015. But it wasn’t until the floodgates opened at Michigan State last Saturday that Jackson was able to rack up a career-high 188 yards rushing on top of Thorson’s career-high 27 completions and Carr’s career-high 11 receptions. Conventional football wisdom suggests the run game opens up the passing attack, but the last two games have shown that Northwestern’s primary offensive weapons all feed off each other’s production.
After playing more like a game-manager on the way to 10 wins as a redshirt freshman in 2015, Thorson has already eclipsed last year’s passing touchdowns mark with 11 and is close to matching last year’s totals for completions and yardage. As Thorson’s favorite target, Carr is enjoying similar success. Five of the wideout’s eight touchdowns in 2016 came in his last two games, which is even more remarkable considering he’d scored two total touchdowns prior to this season.
“To see the way our guys are executing right now, at a pretty darn high level, I think makes it challenging (on) a defense,” Fitzgerald said following Saturday’s win at Michigan State.
Granted, Iowa and Michigan State aren’t close to the Big Ten powers they were a year ago, and some regression toward the mean on Northwestern’s end is likely. The Wildcats banged-up defense now looks like a liability, plummeting in the defensive S&P rankings from No. 5 last season to No. 46 this year through six games.
Still, here are Northwestern’s final six games: vs. Indiana, at Ohio State, vs. Wisconsin, at Purdue, at Minnesota, and vs. Illinois. You have to like Fitzgerald’s chances to take his team bowling if its true identity resembles what we’ve seen so far in October.
Last season, Northwestern won in spite of its offense. If they get back to a bowl this season, it will likely be because of it.