Better or worse in the Big Ten West: Northwestern offense
Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we are going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. We will do a team a day in each division. Up today, the Northwestern Wildcats.
You might have forgotten, but Northwestern won 10 games last year.
Often put near the bottom of the preseason polls in the Big Ten, the Wildcats return some key guys from last year who helped Northwestern beat Stanford, Duke, Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin.
It wasn’t necessarily their offense that won those games, though. The Wildcats finished dead-last in the Big Ten in total offense last year with just 327 yards per game. The passing game was nearly nonexistent, with 138 yards per game, which ranked 119th in the nation out of 128 teams. But thanks to running back Justin Jackson, Northwestern was in the top four in rushing yards per game.
So the question remains: if they were that bad last year, could they improve this year and win 10 games again, or more?
Let’s take a look at where Northwestern’s offense compares to a year ago:
Northwestern by the numbers
Total yards per game: 327.1 (14th in Big Ten/No. 115 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 188.5 (4th in Big Ten/No. 42 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 138.5 (14th in Big Ten/No. 119 nationally)
Key players lost: OG Geoff Mogus, OG Matt Frazier, OG Shane Mertz
Key returning players RB Justin Jackson
The skinny: Justin Jackson has been the workhorse for Northwestern the past two years. He’s played in 25 of 26 games, racked up 15 touchdowns and rushed for an average of 1,300 yards a season.
This year, he’ll need to be bigger and better than ever. With a sophomore quarterback who didn’t have a great season as a freshman, Jackson will need to have more than 1,500 yards this season to carry the Wildcats. With a tough road schedule that includes trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State — all in October — the offensive line will also be huge in opening up holes for Jackson against those big defensive fronts.
Key players lost: WR Dan Vitale, WR Christian Jones
Key returning players: QB Clayton Thorson
The skinny: If Northwestern wants to have a legitimate chance at winning the Big Ten West and beat out Nebraska and Iowa, QB Clayton Thorson needs to be much better than last year. In 13 games last season, Thorson threw for 1,522 yards, seven touchdowns and nine picks. His completion percentage was barely over 50 percent.
He was a true freshman, and Northwestern still won 10 games with him at QB. On the plus side, he doesn’t need to be great for Northwestern to compete in the Big Ten West. Just better. But he’ll have to do it without his two leading receivers last season in Dan Vitale and Christian Jones, and he will have to prove himself on the road at some of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten.
One stat that must improve
When you’re talking about the worst statistical offense in the Big Ten, really any improvement in any statistical category would be good. But specifically, pass efficiency needs to go up.
Northwestern doesn’t throw the ball much. Only Ohio State and Rutgers threw the ball less last year. But Northwestern also wasn’t efficient passing the ball, finished 13th in the league there.The pass attempts probably won’t increase much this year, but the efficiency needs to.
Can they do it again?
Can they win 10 games again by being dead last in scoring, total offense and pass offense? The Northwestern defense was crazy good last year, but at a certain point the offense needs to become something other than a handoff to Justin Jackson, especially now that Jackson is two years into his tenure and already has 557 carries in two seasons.
Better or worse in 2016?
BETTER, BUT BARELY: It’s hard to say Northwestern won’t improve at least somewhat.
Thorson is now a sophomore, and that extra year of experience should make a huge difference. Jackson is going to continue to get near 100 yards a game, maybe more. There are positives to this season offensively.
Northwestern’s defense is good enough to win the Big Ten West, but the offense needs to take the next step and be better, with both yards and points.
Thorson needs to to improve his passing percentage to at least above 55 percent, have four or five fewer interceptions and find some new favorite wide receiver targets early on in the season. Jackson needs to be be a beast, and ready to carry a heavy, heavy load. If that happens, they will be better.