Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, December 17, 2017
Pat Fitzgerald has one of the rising programs in the Big Ten. The Wildcats are in a bowl for the eighth time in the last 10 years. And with a win vs. Kentucky in the Music City Bowl, NU will earn a 10th victory in a season for the second time in the last four years and the third time since 2012.
This year?s team has shown resiliency, rebounding from a slow start to become one of the hottest teams in the nation. Northwestern has done it with a balanced offense that ranks fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (29.7 ppg). Clayton Thorson leads an attack that averages 405.2 yards (fourth in the league), as he continues his evolution as a quarterback. The junior is third in the Big Ten in passing yards with 2,809. And he has found some go-to targets in Flynn Nagel (47 catches for 483 yards with two TDs) and Bennett Skowronek (42-619-5).
The defense also has been sturdy, allowing just 19.8 points to rank fifth in the conference. The unit is opportunistic, helping NU rank second in the Big Ten in turnover margin (plus five). Only two Big Ten schools have more than the Wildcats? 23 takeaways. Players like ends Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller, tackle Tyler Lancaster, safeties Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro and linebackers Paddy Fisher and Nate Hall lead the way. Fisher was BTN.com?s Big Ten Defensive Freshman of the Year in what has been a sensational season in Evanston for the Northwestern program.
Record: 9-3 overall; 7-2 Big Ten/2nd West
Bowl: Music City vs. Kentucky
High point: After a tough 2-3 start that included wins vs. Nevada and Bowling Green, Northwestern finished the season by winning seven in a row. At one point, the Wildcats won three OT games in a row, beating Iowa (17-10); Michigan State (39-31 in 3 OTs); and Nebraska (31-24). No FBS team ever had played three overtime games in a row and won them all. The victory at Nebraska made the Wildcats bowl eligible for a third consecutive year.
Low point: Following the aforementioned 2-3 start, doubts began to creep in. How good was this team? A 41-17 loss at Duke in the second game of the season was a body blow. Then, Northwestern began Big Ten play 0-2, falling 33-24 at Wisconsin and 31-7 to Penn State. Would the Wildcats recover? They answered that with a resounding ?yes? by winning their last seven games.
Offensive MVP: RB Justin Jackson. The 5-11, 200-pound senior is capping an iconic career as Northwestern?s all-time leading rusher with 5,283 yards to go along with 39 rushing TDs. He has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his four seasons, becoming just the second Big Ten player and ninth in NCAA annals to pull off that feat. Jackson ranks third in the Big Ten in rushing with 1,154 yards to earn consensus second-team All-Big Ten accolades.
Defensive MVP: S Godwin Igwebuike. You can make a case for LB Paddy Fisher (who is fourth in the Big Ten in tackles as a redshirt freshman with 110) and end Joe Gaziano (who leads the Big Ten with eight sacks). But the 6-0, 212-pound Igwebuike gets the nod after earning consensus second-team All-Big Ten accolades. The senior has 72 tackles and 11 passes broken up while also providing great leadership for a NU defense that is No. 5 in the Big Ten in scoring (19.8 ppg).