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Northwestern may have been blown out by Tennessee in the Outback Bowl last season, but the fact that the Wildcats made it to 10 wins was impressive enough. While they were blown out multiple times en route to those wins, they also took down Stanford in the opener and won at Wisconsin, two things no one thought possible before the season.
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The Wildcats have enough pieces to reach those levels again, but one thing they’ll need to do so is get better consistency out of the offense. That starts with redshirt sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who was respectable last year, but still had a few duds. He finished with 7 passing TDs to go with 9 INTs and 397 yards and five more touchdowns on the ground. That experience should help, but Northwestern is once again lacking options on the receiving end. Austin Carr returns (16 receptions) with a slew of other guys that have limited experience. The hope is that someone like Flynn Nagel or Jelani Roberts can step up.
On a positive note, the Wildcats return four starters along the offensive line to go with running back Justin Jackson (1,418 yards, 5 TDs), who was one of the lone bright spots on the offense last year. With an equally good running game and another solid defense, that should be enough to compete in the Big Ten West.
The defensive side does lose a few players, but the talent is still there for Northwestern. Linebacker is stocked with All-American Anthony Walker leading the way to go with Jaylen Prater and Cameron Quiero. The secondary will be solid as well with corner Matthew Harris and safety Godwin Igwebuike providing experience. The line might be the biggest question, but Tyler Lancaster and Ifeadi Odenigbo are pieces that can form a formidable unit.
The Wildcats got to 10 wins last year via a solid defense that beat up on weaker teams and an offense that did just enough. With a winnable non-conference slate again, those 10 wins will be possible, but a tougher Big Ten schedule will make it harder.
If the ‘Cats don’t show any improvement, it’s hard to see them getting past Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State all on the road. But fortunately, those three games could end up being their only losses if Thorson takes a step at quarterback. Home games against Nebraska and Wisconsin are surely winnable after taking down those teams on the road last year. And even late-season road trips to Purdue and Minnesota should lead to wins.
Northwestern still isn’t getting much respect in the conference, but with another solid season under Pat Fitzgerald, that shouldn’t be the case. The West is truly up for grabs this season and the Wildcats are a team that could fight for that title.
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2016 Northwestern Wildcats Football Schedule
Sept. 3 vs. Western Michigan
Sept 10 vs. Illinois State
Sept. 17 vs. Duke
Sept. 24 vs. Nebraska
Oct. 1 at Iowa
Oct. 15 at Michigan State
Oct. 22 vs. Indiana
Oct. 29 at Ohio State
Nov. 5 vs. Wisconsin
Nov. 12 at Purdue
Nov. 19 at Minnesota
Nov. 26 vs. Illinois
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