As the Big Ten enters its nine-game conference schedule, the Land of 10 examines each school before its league opener:
ANALYSIS: If there’s a key that’ll unlock the potential of quarterback Clayton Thorson, coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff still haven’t found it. The receiving corps, wideout Austin Carr notwithstanding, hasn’t given Thorson much help; neither has a porous offensive line (11 sacks allowed in three games). The defense remains respectable enough (No. 26 nationally in fewest points allowed per possession with 1.11; the Wildcats ranked 10th last year with 1.31), despite missing key pass rushers from last fall. But they’re also gassed from spending too much dang time on the field (NU is next to last in time of possession at 26:30 per contest).
Which circles back to the elephant in the room: After averaging 188.5 yards on the ground and 4.1 yards per carry last fall, the ‘Cats are last in the Big Ten in rushing after three weeks at a measly 98.3 yards per tilt and a hide-the-women-and-children 2.8 yards per carry. Fitzgerald has to get banged-up back Justin Jackson (86.7 yards per game) going — or something going, and against Western Michigan (loss), Illinois State (loss), and Duke (win), the results have proved to be either negative or mixed. A solid defensive corps is wasted if it’s on the field for whole quarters at a time, and if the Wildcats can’t figure out a way to move the chains consistently against Big Ten peers, a bad start could turn into an ugly season in an awful hurry.
KEY GAME: vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 5.
Fitzgerald takes pride in his team’s November play, but October (at Iowa, at Michigan State, vs. Indiana, at Ohio State) could very well bury this team first. If the Wildcats are to salvage anything from a campaign that’s already gotten off on the wrong foot, they have to start holding serve at Ryan Field, and that probably demands a sweep of the Hoosiers (Oct. 22), Badgers (Nov. 5) and Illini (Nov. 26) in Evanston.
KEY PLAYER: Justin Jackson, RB
In the 18 games since 2014 in which Jackson has picked up at least 90 rushing yards, the Wildcats are 13-5. In the 10 games where he rushed under 90: 3-7. Northwestern doesn’t need Thorson to be brilliant. But it does need to keep its defense fresh and off the field, somehow. Getting Jackson rolling again would go a long way toward reversing some of September’s negative mojo.
FIRST MATCHUP: vs. Nebraska (3-0), 7:30 pm ET, Saturday, Ryan Field, Big Ten Network
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Jackson finds his health and finds his feet; the “Cardiac Cats” return, win a road game or two they shouldn’t; Northwestern peaks in November and bowls for a second consecutive season, something that hasn’t happened since 2011-2012.
WORST-CASE SCENARIO: More of the same. Jackson gets hurt and stays hurt. Thorson keeps running for his life, and running backward. Dropped balls. Punts. A defense already tired from the first six weeks starts to wear down completely by mid-October. A Nov. 26 Land of Lincoln showdown with Illinois is the battle to avoid a last-place finish in the West.
REALISTIC SCENARIO: Things perk up, but not enough to salvage a bowl game. For all the criticisms leveled at Fitzgerald, his teams over the past decade have never appeared to quit on him, even after horrendous starts. Considering that 2016 opened about as horrendously as one could imagine, and with road trips to Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State are coming up on the docket, that sense of pride is about to be severely tested.