The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago.
We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time to …
1. Can quarterback Clayton Thorson take the next step?
As a passer last fall, Thorson was — well, he was an heck of a runner. In his first start as Northwestern’s No. 1 signal-caller, the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman out-sprinted the entire Stanford defense in the season-opener for a 42-yard touchdown, setting the stage for a 10-3 campaign and a second-place finish in the wide-open Big Ten West.
For the season, the 6-foot-4 Thorson complemented workhorse tailback Justin Jackson (1,418 rushing yards, five touchdowns) with 397 yards on the ground, five rushing scores and a per-carry clip of 4.0 yards per tote.
But when defenses got wise and stacked the box, daring Thorson to beat them over the top, the results were mixed. The Wildcats quarterback completed just 50.8 percent of his throws, was picked off nine times and threw for only seven scores. Whether by design or on-site adjustment, Northwestern tried to avoid putting too much on Thorson’s plate through the air — the Wildcats passed only 40.7 percent of the time, and their yards per attempt (4.9) and passing yards per game (137.4) were at the bottom of the league.
Thorson’s inexperience combined with the consistency of Jackson and an excellent defense played into an understandably conservative approach. The Wildcats were tough to catch with a lead, even a narrow one, with Thorson often acting as a second tailback within the zone-read approach to help play keep-away with the football.
But when Northwestern got behind by more than a few scores, things had the potential to get out-of-hand in a hurry: Those three defeats were behind-the-woodshed beatdowns by an average of 35.7 points. The 38-0 loss at Michigan, the 40-10 beating by Iowa and the 45-6 rout by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl were all very hard to watch.
A receiving corps that no longer features super-back Dan Vitale won’t help Thorson’s development, although 6-foot-1 wideout Austin Carr logged productive snaps (16 catches, 302 receiving yards), and switching speedy tailback/return ace Solomon Vault (26.3 yards per kick return, two returns for touchdowns) to a receiver role gets more potentially game-breaking athletes on the field at a position of need.
The Wildcats won 10 games while ranking 120th nationally in passing offense in 2015, which might be the best compliment to just how good Jackson and that defense were in a pinch. However, it’s hard to count on repeated success with that kind of trend line, especially with defenses working off a year of Thorson game footage.
While coach Pat Fitzgerald’s defense and ground game should be solid again, assuming Jackson remains upright, the ‘Cats might well end up going as Thorson goes. For better or for worse.
2. Is linebacker Anthony Walker worthy of the hype?
Exhibit A — State College, Pa., September 2014:
What do you think?
In his first collegiate start, Walker turned in the kind of plays against Penn State that you’d expect a Penn State linebacker to make, capped off by a 49-yard Pick-Six.
For the 6-foot-1 defender, no stage seems too big. At Notre Dame? Six tackles and another interception. Against Stanford? Ten tackles, two pass breakups. At Duke? Twelve tackles. At Nebraska? Thirteen more stops.
You get the picture.
Fitzgerald has made hay by unearthing and developing overlooked gems, but the Miami native might prove to be his most impressive defensive find yet. In fact, if Walker’s learning curve continues along its current path, the coach’s next challenge could well be convincing No. 18 to stick around for his senior season.
3. Can this defense keep carrying the water?
Last autumn’s unit was more than a throwback, it was the defense best fielded in Evanston since Fitzgerald was playing in the middle of it some two decades earlier. The Wildcats ranked among the top 20 defenses nationally in opponent yards per play (4.5, eighth), opponent third-down conversion rate (34.3, 19th), opponent completion percentage (54.2, 20th) and opponent yards per pass (5.6, third). The ‘Cats weren’t just hard to break — they were actually hard to bend, too.
The 12-sack combo of departed ends Dean Lowry and Deonte Gibson will be missed, although pass-rushing specialist Ifeadi Odenigbo has been a rotation terror (13.5 sacks since 2013) for three seasons now. The ‘Cats have depth there, and aren’t afraid to use it.
Of equal interest in the eventual makeup of the secondary, where senior cornerback Matthew Harris (four picks, 13 passes defensed) might be the best corner in the circuit outside of Iowa City, Ann Arbor or Columbus and safety Godwin Igwebuike is one of the division’s unheralded playmakers.
There’s more than enough on hand, on paper, to negate worries of a huge drop-off — and that’s good. Because if Thorson can’t keep opposing defenses a little more honest, they just might have to handle the bulk of the heavy lifting. Again.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler