2016 season review: Northwestern survives ups & downs to make bowl

2016 season review: Northwestern survives ups & downs to make bowl

Northwestern is back in the bowl business for a second season in a row, but the season didn’t go as expected. In 2015, the Wildcats won 10 games and had big dreams as 2016 dawned. Could Northwestern win the Big Ten West? But the season didn’t go as expected for Pat Fitzgerald and NU, which struggled to reach six wins and bowl eligibility.

In fact, Northwestern had to win its season finale vs. Illinois just to get to six victories. At times, the offense struggled to gain traction, especially early in the season. The low point? A 9-7 home loss to FCS Illinois State in which the Cats had just 277 yards on offense and lost on a last-second field goal.

Still, give the Wildcats credit for fighting through some tough times and salvaging the season as the offense came to life.

Northwestern has no lack of star power, led by a power trio on offense that includes QB Clayton Thorson, RB Justin Jackson and WR Austin Carr. Superback Garrett Dickerson also has excelled, and Tommy Doles is the top blocker. The defense has a terrific foursome in E Ifeadi Odenigbo, LB Anthony Walker, S Godwin Igwebuike and CB Montre Hartage.

Record: 6-6 overall; 5-4 Big Ten/T4th West
Bowl: Pinstripe vs. Pitt

High point: Northwestern was struggling with a 1-3 start, the season threatening to go off the rails with a game at Iowa on deck. But the Wildcats rebounded, knocking off the Hawkeyes, 38-31. That began a three-game winning streak that also saw Northwestern win 54-40 at Michigan State, the most points an opponent ever had scored in Spartan Stadium. NU followed that with a solid 24-14 win at Indiana, making the Wildcats 4-3 and giving them hope.

Low point: The Wildcats flopped out of the gate, losing home games to MAC power Western Michigan (22-21) and to FCS Illinois State (9-7). Northwestern rebounded by beating Duke (24-13) in Evanston but then subsequently lost to No. 20 Nebraska (24-13) at Ryan Field. So, NU opened with four home games, and was just 1-3. Not a good way to start a season of promise.

Offensive MVP: WR Austin Carr. He arrived in Evanston as a walk-on and will leave as an all-time great. Carr paces the Big Ten with 84 catches for 1,196 yards and 12 touchdowns. For that, the 6-1, 200-pound senior earned Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors. Carr is part of a dynamic trio of playmakers for the Northwestern offense. QB Clayton Thorson has blossomed as a sophomore, hitting 58 percent of his passes for 2,968 yards with 21 TDs and only eight interceptions. The 6-4, 220-pound Thorson is an emerging talent. RB Justin Jackson ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing by averaging 108.3 yards. He has rushed 266 times for 1,300 yards with 12 TDs to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media. The 5-11, 190-pound junior is the first Northwestern player ever to rush for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

Defensive MVP: Ifeadi Odenigbo. The defensive end enjoyed a banner senior season, pacing the team with 12 TFLs and 10 sacks, which rank second in the Big Ten. The 6-3, 265-pound Odenigbo has been a force, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media and second team from the coaches. Also have to mention S Godwin Igwebuike, the team’s top tackler with 101 stops. The 6-0, 205-pound junior is a hard hitter who was a second-team All-Big Ten choice by the coaches. And junior LB Anthony Walker was a second-team All-Big Ten pick by the coaches.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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