It’s not a secret within the Big Ten that Pat Fitzgerald has turned Northwestern into a legitimate threat every season. OUtside of the usual early-season struggles, the Wildcats closed 2017 with eight-straight wins that includedthree consecutive overtime wins and a bowl victory against Kentucky en route to a 10-3 record. If they want to reach that level again, quarterback Clayton Thorson has to return for the first Game. The spring odds at 5Dimes Sportsbook weren’t too favorable as the Wildcats had worse numbers than Four other teams in the Big Ten West, placing them above only Minnesota and Illinois.
Thorson tore his ACL in the team’s bowl Game and his status out of spring was up in the air for the first Game of the season. Thorson is said to have NFL talent, although his numbers say otherwise after finishing with 6.6 yards per attempt to go with 15 touchdowns and 12 picks. If Thorson isn’t ready for the start of the season, Andrew Marty is thought to be the replacement and not last year’s backup Matt Alviti. After cancelling their spring scrimmage, there’s been little info regarding Thorson’s possible replacement. To go with that, Northwestern also has to replace stud running back Justin Jackson (1,311 yards, 11 TDs). Sophomore Jeremy LArkin looked the part in a secondary role in 2017 with 503 yards and should see the bulk of carries with a slew of guys fighting behind him. Receiver returns the top guys with Flynn Nagel (48 receptions) and Ben Skowronek (45 receptions) and that shouldn’t be an area of concern. Four starters also return up front so there are plenty of options to help whoever opens the season at quarterback. But due to Schedule, it’d be best if Thorson is the guy.
The defense should be just as good after allowing less than 20 points per Game. The secondary is the area that needs to improve the most after allowing close to 250 passing yards per Game with three starters gone from that group. That being the case, it’s hard to see the pass defense improving much, but the front seven will run the unit the same way it did a year ago. Linebacker Nate Hall missed spring due to injury, but he should be ready to go along with a slew of defensive ends led by Joe Gaziano and Samdup Miller. Those two guys should have bigger roles as Northwestern returns almost all of its sacks from 2017.
The problem for the Wildcats is that they open with a trip to Purdue, a team that started to turn the corner last season with a new coach. Even if they grab a win there, it doesn’t get easier with another Game against Duke and then a feisty Akron team. That non-Conference slate leads into back-to-back Games against Michigan schools, followed by Nebraska. Throw in an equally difficult stretch of Wisconsin, Notre Dame and Iowa in late October and this year could look a lot different record wise.
The Wildcats may be just as good as a year ago, but their odds have them closer to seven or eight wins due to Schedule. Getting Nebraska and Wisconsin at home helps, but trips to Michigan State and Iowa have the opposite effect. Throw in a difficult non-Conference Schedule and injury issues with Thorson, and Northwestern could have trouble reaching more than seven wins in the regular season.
2018 Northwestern Wildcats Football Schedule
Aug. 30 at Purdue
Sept. 8 vs. Duke
Sept. 15 vs. Akron
Sept. 29 vs. Michigan
Oct. 6 at Michigan State
Oct. 13 vs. Nebraska
Oct. 20 at Rutgers
Oct. 27 vs. Wisconsin
Nov. 3 vs. Notre Dame
Nov. 10 at Iowa
Nov. 17 at Minnesota
Nov. 24 vs. Illinois