Folks in Evanston were pleased with last season's finish, including the bowl win over Pittsburgh to end the year. They should not be as pleased as they are. This team is far better on paper than a 7-6 record would indicate, and I found their season to be lacking in a ton of areas, and most of it was because of an absolutely horrid start that saw this team lose three of their first four games, including an absolute embarrassment to Illinois State where the Wildcats scored just seven points in a 9-7 loss. Northwestern won three of four at the end, but that trend has got to continue once again to start the 2017 season, or else the wheels will come off again.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
Clayton Thorson made major strides as a sophomore last fall, passing for 22 TDs, and 3182 yards. He averaged 244.8 yards per game, and will be one of the better QBs in the Big 10 to start out the 2017 season. He needs to settle down more in the pocket and become a more efficient and accurate passer, but he is developing nicely at this point.
Justin Jackson is back at RB, and will be one of the best in the nation this fall after rushing for 1524 yards and 15 TDs, while averaging 5.11 yards per carry. He carried the ball over 22 times per game last fall, and will be a work horse back for the Cats. John Moten IV will be back as well, and should start to see a bit more work as he should be the starter in 2018. He rushed for 340 yards off of 57 carries last season, but averaged a solid 5.96 yards per carry.
Austin Carr is gone at WR, but Flynn Nagel returns after catching 40 passes last season. Macan Wilson returns as well after finishing with 222 receptions last fall.
Four starters return on the line in LT Blake Hance, LG JB Butler, C Brad North, and RG Tommy Doles.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Losing Carr is a huge hit at WR, as he was one of the most exciting receivers in Northwestern football history. Replacing his 90 receptions and 1247 yards will be a massive undertaking in fall camp, and will be imperative to the success of Thorson in the passing game.
Solomon Gault and Garrett Dickerson are candidates to step up, but they have yet to on a high level. Three key reserves return to give them some other options, but again, experience and production are in short supply.
The Wildcats also need to find a replacement at RT for Eric Olson. Ben Oxley, a junior, gets first crack.
The PK game is also in need of a replacement and upgrade, as the departed Jack Mitchell hit only 8/12 FG attempts last fall. Backup Matt Micucci is gone as well.
The Wildcats also need to avoid another slow start on offense, as they just 41 points combined in losses to Western Michigan, Illinois State, and Nebraska to start last season.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
Three starters return up front in DTs Jordan Thompson and Tyler Lancaster, and RE Xavier Washington. Washington finished with 7.5 TFLs, while Thompson and Lancaster combined for 5.5 up the middle. Sophomore Joe Gaziano could be in turn to take over at LE.
The Cats are all set at the outside backer spots, as both Brett Walsh (WILL) and Nate Hall (SAM) both return. Hall finished third on the team with 73 tackles, while Walsh finished with 37.Nathan Fox got limited playing time as a freshman, and could be in line to replace Anthony Walker at the MIKE spot.
The secondary will return in full this fall, which is a huge thing for this football team. Montre Hartage and Trae Williams will be back at CB, while Godwin Igwebuike and Kyle Queiro will be back at the Safety spots. Hartage and Williams combined for 16 PBUs last fall, and Hartage led the team with five INTs. Williams added 42 tackles. Igwebuike led the team with 108 tackles and finished with seven PBUs, while Queiro finished with six PBUs and 53 tackles. The two safeties combined for another four picks as well. All four backups return as well.
Hunter Niswander is back at Punter after averaging 41.3 yards per punt on the season.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
I really like the makeup of this defense this fall, but I cannot turn a blind eye to what was lost, and there were two major losses in DE Ifeadi Odenigbo (12 TFLs, 10 sacks) and LB Anthony Walker (105 tackles, 10 TFLs, five PBUs, six QB hurries, four forced fumbles). These numbers will be tough to replicate, and finding replacements for both should take some time in fall camp.
2017 Schedule: 9/2 Nevada, 9/9 at Duke, 9/16 Bowling Green, 9/30 at Wisconsin, 10/7 Penn State, 10/14 at Maryland, 10/21 Iowa, 10/28 Michigan State, 11/4 at Nebraska, 11/11 Purdue, 11/18 Minnesota, 11/25 at Illinois
The Wildcats get challenged with this schedule in conference play rather early on. Wisconsin and Penn State are the first two conference opponents on the docket, and that could set the tone for the rest for the conference slate. A strong finish is possible, and will be necessary if the Cats can stay in the race early. The roster is still loaded on defense, despite huge losses, but the offense will need to find some weapons at receiver to stay in the game. Jackson and Thorson will be depending on it. In short, I think that Northwestern can at least be good enough to finish third in the Big 10 West, and could push Minnesota for second.